We all know the towering Jews of secular history, figures such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud and David Ben-Gurion. There are, however, plenty of lesser-known Jews who were accomplished or celebrated in their lifetimes but largely forgotten over time.
The following brief sketches highlight several Jews who have not received much attention in the history books but who attained some distinctive measure of success or were closely associated with a momentous event or distinguished individual.
Aaron of Lincoln
England in the 1100s – in the wake of William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of the country in 1066 – was a country of both turmoil and tranquility. There was political upheaval and peace, lawlessness and order. Nobles and peasants inhabited towns and villages and the English countryside was dotted with castles. There was a royal line that launched invasions of other lands and zealously protected its own kingdom.
And in 12th-century England there was a man whose fortune was said to be greater than that of anyone else in the land – even King Henry II. He was Aaron of Lincoln, a Jew who had amassed immense wealth as a financier.
Aaron came from Lincoln, the town that became his namesake, and he was probably born in the late 1120s. It is not known how he became a financier, but at that time Jews were typically forced into the profession. From the Pipe Roll (compilation of financial accounts) of the king’s twelfth year, 1165, it is known that Aaron lent money to Henry II.
After the heirless Jewish moneylender died in 1186, his estate was appropriated as belonging to the crown. The spread of anti-Semitism over the next century eventually reached Aaron’s hometown of Lincoln, and by 1290 nearly all of Lincoln’s Jews had been slaughtered or expelled.
Luis de Torres
In 1492 Christopher Columbus’s Spanish fleet of three ships ventured across the Atlantic and landed in the West Indies island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), resulting in the so-called discovery of America, which effectively opened the western hemisphere for colonization and settlement by Europeans.
On this epic voyage was Luis de Torres, a Jew who was baptized just prior to setting sail so he wouldn’t be deported under the Spanish Alhambra Decree, which expelled Jews.
Little is known about de Torres, who is said to have served as an interpreter for the expedition. Columbus (who some have speculated came from a Marrano family) would make three more voyages to the New World (the final one in 1502) but the first voyage may have been de Torres’s last.
There are various accounts of what happened to the Jewish sailor, but the story with a greatest credibility is that he was one of the 39 or 40 crew members left behind in Hispaniola by Columbus, all of whom were all killed in clashes with the natives.
Dr. Elijah de Luna Montalto
In 1567 in the Portuguese town of Castelo Brancoa, a baby was baptized with the name Felipe Rodrigues. His parents had been Jews but converted to Christianity during the Inquisition to avoid torture on the strapaddo or death at the stake. Felipe attended the University of Salamanca, the oldest such institution in Spain, where he completed his medical studies.
He later went back to Portugal with his wife but in 1602 took his family to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. It was there that his reputation brought him to the attention of the Grand Duke Ferdinando. The “New Christian” became the private physician to the grand duke and was held in high esteem.
And then one day he mysteriously disappeared. He was pursued by agents of the grand duke to learn the reason for his sudden flight. The runaway doctor was eventually tracked down in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. He’d given up all he had so he could return to Judaism and live openly as a Jew.
He said he didn’t mind living as a poor man and under political restrictions so long as he had the freedom to practice his religion. He had taken the name Elijah de Luna Montalto.
He had returned to his people and his God.
On July 1, 1776, a son of Captain Aaron Smith, with two of his fingers shot off, made his way to the home of Francis Salvador in Coroneka (also known as Cornacre) in the Ninety-Six District of South Carolina. The distressed man breathlessly related the harrowing event that brought him there: Cherokee Indians had come to his father’s house at Little River and slaughtered his parents, five children, and five male Negroes.
Word immediately followed that Cherokees and white men dressed and painted as Indians (Loyalists to the British Crown) were now terrorizing residents of frontier settlements in South Carolina.
Salvador, a representative for the Ninety-Six District in South Carolina’s General Assembly was a relative newcomer to the area. He had immigrated to the colony at the end of 1773 from England. He was just two when his father died, but coming from substantial wealth he and his brother Moses were educated with the finest tutors. When each boy came of age he was granted an inheritance of £60,000 sterling.
Francis married his first cousin Sarah, the daughter of his paternal uncle. They settled in Twickenham, near his mother and her second husband. When Francis lost his fortune due to speculative enterprise he journeyed to South Carolina with the intention of later bringing over his wife, three daughters, and son John, who had become an Episcopal clergyman. In 1774 Francis purchased land and some slaves in South Carolina, where he developed a reputation as a well-bred gentleman and subsequently was elected to public office.
Knowing that every able-bodied man was needed now to save the settlements from further bloodshed, Salvador didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the dangerous undertaking of fighting off the invaders and rode his horse 28 miles to the home of his friend Major Andrew Williamson, a militia leader.
Williamson had often tried to conciliate Indians with assurances of peace, and sent word that if they would identify the white men who carried lies to them he would capture and punish them.
But the British superintendent of Indian Affairs, who had fled, instigated them through his deputy to launch frontier attacks as a diversion for the British fleet arriving off Charlestown as part of a British plan to attack the southern colonies.
So great was the panic in the frontier settlements that Major Williamson collected an army of more than 450 men in a short time. On July 3 they marched to Barker’s Creek and had encamped at Twenty-Three Mile Creek when intelligence came that impelled the major to launch an attack against the Indians before they received word about his advanced position.
On an evening in early August Williamson led an army of 330 frontier defenders on horseback. In their group were two prisoners who were brought along to show where the enemy was situated. The prisoners were warned that if they misled the group they would immediately be killed. Williamson’s men proceeded on their march when suddenly a barrage of gunfire erupted. The enemy, camouflaged in branches and corn-blades, had ambushed the militia from behind a long fence.
Two shots hit Francis Salvador, who fell from his horse. Williamson’s horse was felled but the major was unhurt. A lieutenant offered the major his horse but Williamson requested that he tend to Salvador. It was dark, and by the time Salvador was found his scalp had been removed. Another surviving son of Captain Smith saw an Indian making the bloody incision but thought it was a servant attending to his master. He deeply regretted his mistake; he felt he could have killed the Indian and saved Salvador.
About 45 minutes after Salvador had been wounded Major Williamson came to him and they spoke. Salvador was still conscious and asked whether they had beaten the enemy. Williamson answered affirmatively and Salvador expressed his joy. He then held the major’s hand and softly said farewell as he knew his end was imminent. At 2:30 in the morning Francis Salvador succumbed to his wounds, the first Jewish fatality in the American War of Independence.
Any challenge from Joseph Priestley would certainly be formidable given the 18th-century English chemist and theologian’s distinguished reputation. Gases, conduction, and the law of electric attraction were among the abstruse scientific areas he studied, but it was as the discoverer of oxygen that he would receive his greatest scientific acclaim.
Priestley also published many theological writings including “Letter to the Jews, Inviting Them to an Amicable Discussion of the Evidence of Christianity.” A response to Priestley’s provocative epistle came from David Levi, a humble erstwhile English shoemaker and hat-dresser-turned writer of Jewish works and a stalwart defender of Jews.
In 1787 Levi published his “Reply to Dr. Priestley’s Letters to the Jews” in which he famously stated, “I am not ashamed to tell you that I am a Jew, by choice, and not because I was born a Jew; far from it; for I am clearly of opinion that every person endowed with ratiocination ought to have a clear idea of the truth of revelation, and a just ground of his faith as far as human evidence can go.”
Levi published another letter to Priestley in 1789 and continued to write Jewish works and to advocate for Jews such as in his book A Defence of the Old Testament in a Series of Letters to Thomas Paine.
The Rubinstein Brothers
On November 17, 1876 a 41-year-old conductor mounted a podium in a concert hall in Moscow. With Tsar Alexander II expected to make a declaration of war on Turkey, the audience was hungry for a stirring patriotic composition. The conductor raised his hand and at his signal the orchestra introduced to the world the eminent composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Slavonic March.”
Under Nikolai Rubinstein’s baton, rousing music filled the hall, swelling like a tempestuous sea, swirling and teasing, building frenzied crescendos repeatedly until it reached its haunting, lugubrious main theme. So resounding was the public reaction at the concert that the composer himself wrote it created “a whole storm of patriotic enthusiasm.”
Rubinstein was born in 1835, the son of Jewish parents who had put their faith in the Greek Orthodox religion. He was a distinguished pianist and the founder of the Moscow Conservatoire and the Russian Musical Society. He was also a close friend of Tchaikovsky who helped the composer early in his career and conducted many of his premieres.
Nikolai had a brother, Anton, who was a celebrated pianist and prolific composer. He founded the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and had been a teacher of Tchaikovsky, who dedicated a few works to him. But it was as a musician from which his fame came – he was considered a genius at the instrument, one of the world’s greatest pianists.
Two brothers, two famous musicians.
Unfortunately, Nikolai’s fame would be short-lived. He suffered from health issues and died in Paris at the young age of 45, just four years after conducting the premiere of “Slavonic March.”
Nikolai lived to see the success of his friend Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and “1812 Overture,” but not to witness the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s dazzling ballets “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker.”
Tchaikovsky was so deeply distressed at the premature death of his close friend that he rushed to Paris when he received a telegram that Rubinstein had expired, and in tribute composed in his memory “Piano Trio in A minor,” subtitled “In Memory of a Great Artist.”
David Salomons desired to enter public service in England at a time when there were legal restrictions on non-Christians in that country.
In 1832, when he was 35, Salomons became a founder of the London and Westminster Bank. Three years later, in 1835, he pursued his dream of public service when he was elected alderman for the Aldergate ward of London. But because he was Jewish and therefore could not take the oath of office, he was not admitted. In 1844 he was elected alderman for the Portsoken ward but once again was not admitted.
In 1847, after the oath restriction had been modified by a relief act, he was elected alderman for the Cordwainer ward and this time he was admitted. In 1855 he was elected lord mayor of London and in 1869 was made a baronet.
When others would abandon their dreams because of religious obstacles, Sir David Salomons persisted in his quest to become a public servant, and in a relatively short period of time went from being an individual unable to serve in public office because he was Jewish to becoming the highest elected official of one of the world’s great cities.
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These vignettes do little, of course, to illuminate the great, brave lives of those profiled, and are meant only to be launching pads for further discovery on the part of interested readers. Indeed, these beacons of fortitude and hope, along with other forgotten Jewish figures of history, should be an inspiration to all.