When Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) was yet a young man, he became one of only 12 licensed Jewish members of the London Stock Exchange and, in short order, accumulated great wealth, became a member of the London aristocracy, and became recognized as the most famous Anglo-Jew of the 19th century.
He devoted his later life to philanthropy, spending most his fortune on a broad sweep of Jewish causes across the world, particularly in Eretz Yisrael, but he was also a towering figure in the non-Jewish world, funding schools, hospitals, and other institutions. In England, for example, he not only actively campaigned to abolish slavery but used his own money to back a 20-million-pound government loan to compensate plantation owners for their losses arising out of a new anti-slavery law (1835).
Montefiore became strictly observant only after the first of his seven visits to Eretz Yisrael in 1827. An unapologetic Jew, he was obedient to his faith’s religious leaders and humble and kind in character. He maintained his own synagogue at his estate at Ramsgate from 1833, where he also built a replica of the biblical Rachel’s tomb, and he became a determined opponent of the reform Jewish movement in England. He maintained his position as an honored and respected figure in contemporary secular society while never compromising on his strict fidelity to authentic Judaism.
For example, when he was appointed as Sheriff of London (1837-38), Montefiore specifically included a contractual provision relieving him of having to work on Shabbos and Yom Tov. He always traveled with a group of at least 10 Jews so that he could be assured a minyan at all times, and he brought his own dishes and kosher food to banquets.
Montefiore was elected president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the representative body of British Jewry, and held the position for 44 years. He became the first knighted English Jew (1837), and when Queen Victoria awarded him a baronetcy (1846), she noted Sir Moses’ “unceasing exertions on behalf of his injured and persecuted brethren.”
To Montefiore, an essential part of Orthodox Judaism was not only a belief in the messianic restoration of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael but also the duty to take affirmative steps to facilitate it. Accordingly, he acquired land to enable Jews to become self-supporting through agriculture, and he later tried to bring industry to Eretz Yisrael through the introduction of a textile factory and printing press. While emphasizing self-reliance and self-sufficiency for Jewish settlers in Eretz Yisrael, he simultaneously continued to fund them and to meet their every need.
Furthermore, Montefiore commenced the development of modern Jerusalem by building Mishkenot Shaananim, the first modern Jewish housing project outside the walls of the Old City, and he obtained a permit from the Turkish sultan to rebuild the Hurvah, Jerusalem’s central Ashkenazic synagogue.
He also inspired the founding of several colonies in Eretz Yisrael, including the Yemin Moshe quarter (named for him) overlooking the Old City walls, where one can still find his famous windmill, which he built to provide cheap flour to the poor. He is credited with laying important groundwork for the establishment of Jewish settlements in Eretz Yisrael and for developing early Zionism.
Described as the last of the shtadlanim (intercessor/negotiator on behalf of Jewish communities), Montefiore uniquely combined strategic pragmatism and spiritual fervor to further the cause of oppressed Jews everywhere. He famously visited Russia, where he persuaded Tsar Nicholas I to ease the forced assimilation of Jews and to rescind his decree expelling them (1846); traveled to the Vatican, where he tried, but failed, to convince the Pope Pius IX to free Edgar Mortara, a Jewish youth who had been baptized by his Catholic nurse and kidnapped by church officials (1858); and engaged in diplomatic interventions on behalf of Jewish communities in Morocco (1863) and Rumania (1867).
Perhaps the greatest of his shtadlan activities, however, was his intervention in the Damascus Affair (1840), an infamous blood libel which drew wide international attention as accusations of ritual murder were brought against members of the Jewish community of Damascus. Eight notable Jews, falsely accused of murdering Father Thomas, a Christian monk, were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, and the Muslim populace of Damascus fell upon the Jewish synagogue in the suburb of Jobar, pillaged it, and destroyed its Sifrei Torah.
Montefiore led a delegation to Mohammed Ali, the ruler of Syria and Egypt, and his now legendary successful negotiations in Alexandria (August 4-28) secured the unconditional release of the remaining prisoners and recognition of their innocence. Moreover, he persuaded the Sultan to end the provisions of the infamous Pact of Umar, in effect since medieval times, pursuant to which dhimmis (non-Muslims) received Islamic protection on condition that they accept inferior citizenship and agree to subject themselves to institutionalized humiliation.
Montefiore’s 100th birthday, which was declared a public holiday, was celebrated not only throughout the Jewish world, but also internationally in the secular world. Exhibited here is a page from the November 1, 1884 Illustrated London News, which was accompanied by a description of the service at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London commemorating the special birthday (not shown). The illustrations show the procession bringing in a new Sefer Torah (left), the Minchah service; and Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler delivering a sermon.
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One of the most highly acclaimed landscape painters of the 19th century, David Roberts (1796-1894) was recognized as one of the great Victorian artist-travelers and topographical painters whose work was characterized by a distinct exotic, atmospheric, and ethereal style.
In his time, the Christian passion for the Holy Land became an important aspect of Victorian life, and the public’s broad fascination with the Near East and the biblical sites they had learned about, but never seen, motivated and stimulated Roberts and set him on the course that would assure his immortality.
Roberts became best known for his adventurous journey in 1838-39 across the Sinai Peninsula to Petra, Jerusalem, through Eretz Yisrael, and along the Lebanese and Syrian coasts, during which he recorded Biblical sites, including Jerusalem, Mt. Sinai, Gaza, Ashkelon, Jericho, Jaffa, Tiberius, and Bethlehem, as well as mosques, monasteries, bazaars, and bustling street life.
The unique artistic and ingenious sketches he executed during this remarkable exploration further awakened the long-dormant imagination of the common people in the Holy Land and its environs.
Correspondence between two famous personalities are particularly valued by collectors, particularly when it establishes a heretofore unknown connection between the individuals involved. The correspondence exhibited here may do just that. I could find no evidence that Montefiore and Roberts knew each other, but this correspondence confirms that they did. In this undated handwritten letter to Roberts, Montefiore, who had apparently loaned a sketch or painting to him, thanks him for its return and offers to make it available to him in the future if needed:
Governor Gate Park Lane, Saturday Night:
Sir Moses Montefiore presents his complements to Mr. Roberts and begs to thank him for the return of the Lebanon View of [ ] which Sir Moses [assures?] Mr. Roberts will be much at his service at any time Mr. R[oberts] may want to make drawings from it.
As this correspondence suggests, Roberts did not produce his finished Eretz Yisrael paintings in the Holy Land but, rather, brought back sketches and studies which he used as the basis for studio work in the traditional manner. Although his intent was only to produce drawings, paintings, and lithographs that he could sell to the public, his prolific and faithful final works from his Eretz Yisrael trip became immensely popular to the point that they entered the public consciousness as the definitive view of these biblical sites. He described his journeys in a journal, which he later published and which remains available today.
Where his predecessors had been concerned primarily with the appearance of architectural remains in Eretz Yisrael, Roberts became captivated by their dramatic impact against the desert setting and by the relationship of the contemporary native people to their heritage. As a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, he ingratiated himself to the local Turkish governor, who granted him unfettered access to the tombs, temples, monuments, and ruins of Egypt, Syria, and Eretz Yisrael.
Although he had no formal artistic training, Roberts exhibited his first easel paintings in the Fine Arts Institution in Edinburgh (1822), held his first London exhibition at the Society of British Artists (1824), and held his first exhibition at the Royal Academy and British Institution (1826). His visits to France (1824), Spain and Algeria (1832-33), the Holy Land (1838-39), and Italy (1851, 1853), provided the raw material for many magnificent books illustrated in chromolithography, a newly-developed technique, including Picturesque Sketches in Spain (1837).
His magnum opus, however, was Views in the Holy Land (six volumes 1842-1849), which took him eight years of intense work to complete. It was considered at the time the most ambitious work ever published in England with lithographic plates, and one of his greatest admirers was Queen Victoria, who purchased a complete set of his works, which is still part of the British Royal Collection.
In this rare June 6, 1847 correspondence, Roberts writes:
As you have often asked, who the painter of the beautiful little [William] Heath scene was – now in your possession – I send you the wind up of his back history which, if you like, you may fit on the back of the picture, as his works, like himself, are little known to collectors generally…
Heath (1794-1840) was a British artist who, though originally known for his military scenes, later became an illustrator of color bookplates and some panoramas, which is almost certainly the type of “scene” that Roberts is discussing in this letter. Interestingly, many of his very brief biographies note that little is known about him, confirming Roberts’ statement to that effect in this letter.
For Jews devoted to Eretz Yisrael, particularly Orthodox Zionists, Roberts’ renderings are achingly beautiful and, although done less than 200 years ago, they exhibit an antique quality that evokes images of bygone eras and suggest how the landscapes of the Holy Land may have appeared during ancient times.
At the end of the day, the true Montefiore-Roberts connection is that each, in his unique way, shared a common love for Eretz Yisrael based upon his faith and the Bible. However, where Roberts largely devoted his efforts to preserving images of the past, Montefiore devoted his life to protecting the Jewish people and to building the future Jewish homeland.