Monday, December 10, 2012

Rosh Pina and the Early Census Data


Rosh Pina, one of the earliest Jewish agricultural settlements, was founded 130 years ago this week on December 12, 1882. Actually, it was first founded in 1878, when a group of young pioneers from the nearby town of Safed broke with centuries of tradition by setting out to live as farmers rather than off handouts from European Jewish communities. Unfortunately, they didn't much know what they were doing, and the attempt failed. The 1882 group was made up mostly of new immigrants from Romania and some Russians, and although they too had to overcome massive hardship and for a while the existance of their village depended on the largess of the Rothschilds, eventually they pulled through, and their village is still there to this very day. (Different individuals, though.)

If you're a stickler, the December date wasn't accurate, either: some of the new settlers arrived earlier that year. On December 12, 1882, however, they had their first significant rainfall of the year, which meant they could now sow their first crops. So they had a celebration and marked the event as their beginning. The symbolism may have been bolstered by the connection between the name they had chosen--"Rosh Pina," which means "capstone" and comes from Psalms 118:22--and the holiday of Hanukkah, when the psalm is sung in the Hallel section of services.

The photos, above and below, are of course from a later date, and are from our Zoltan Kluger collection, which means they would have been taken between 1933-1950.


In 1903, there were 292 people in Rosh Pina, and this brings us to a second subject: the Nufus books and early modern census data. Rulers have been counting their subjects for as long as there have been rulers, so as to know how much taxes to collect and occasionally how many men to recruit for their armies. The firmness of the Ottoman rule in the Levant, however, had been loosening for generations, until in the late 19th century they tried to re-estabish it--and what better way to start than by counting folks? Their first broadly successful attempt was in the 1880s, followed by additional rounds in 1903-5, and shortly before WW1. Here's a sheet from the census taken in Rosh Pina in 1903:


And the summary written by the local headman, Yehoshua Ben Aryeh


Only adult men were listed (taxpayers), and the years were according to the Muslim calender, i.e. since the Hijra, so that 1316=1900.

The Israel State Archives has 465 volumes of the Ottoman census data. The word "nufus" means "souls," similar to the way the Hebrew word "nefashot" can also simply mean "people." The volumes were collected by British Mandatory officials, and through them came into our possession. Most of them are Turkish written in Arabic characters, since the Turks adopted Latin characters only in the 20th century; a few of the volumes which are about Jews are in Hebrew. While not all equally reliable nor consistent, they have the potential to give a fascinating and important documented perspective on who lived where in this conflicted little land before and during the earliest stages of Zionist activity. To fully grasp that picture, someone will need to scan them all, then decipher the data into a well-planned database with the capability to track recurring names, families and individuals, and connect them to identified places on the map, and so on. As the ISA is about to launch a large-scale scanning project, we hope the entire collection will soon be scanned. Perhaps we'll attempt to do the labor-intensive deciphering with a spot of crowdsourcing further down the line.

You can see some more information about the collection on our website.

1 comment:

  1. Michal,
    Do you think the Ottoman censuses will at some point be available to search in English? Were there any censuses under British Mandate? And are there later Israeli censuses, for example from the 1950s-1980s, that are accessible to search?
    Thank you
    Joseph Moss

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