For the past thirty years we have been fortunate to have a home in Jerusalem in Yemin Moshe, opposite the walls of the Old City. But it was only recently whilst researching this story about Sir Moses Montefiore, that I discovered the fascinating history of the place that I now call home, for it was he who established Mishkenot Sha’ananim – the first residential project outside the the Old City to provide better housing for the Jews living in squalid and overcrowded conditions.
Seeking a suitable location, Montefiore approached the Governor of Jerusalem Ahmed Aga Dizdar in 1855 and asked him to sell a plot of land he owned. Dizdar replied “ You are my friend, my brother, the apple of my eye. Take possession of it at once. This land I hold as an heirloom from my ancestors. I would not sell it to anyone for thousands of pounds but to you I give it without any money; it is yours, take possession of it.” The Levantine bargaining then began and lasted all day, ending with an agreement that Montefiore should transfer ‘a souvenir’ of £1,000 to Dizdar.
The first building was erected on what was then a deserted hillside. It comprised 28 one and a half roomed apartments, a mikveh, (ritual bath), a communal oven and a water cistern with an iron pump imported from England. The construction money came from the estate of Judah Touro who was of sephardi descent, born 1775 in Rhode Island. The son of a cantor, he moved to New Orleans in 1801, opened a small shop selling soap and candles and from this modest beginning became a wealthy merchant and shipowner. In spite of this he lived modestly in a small apartment. Although he was 38, he volunteered to fight in Andrew Jackson’s army in the War of 1812 and was severely wounded. He eventually recovered and resumed his business and extensive philanthropical interests in The Holy Land and America, many of which bear his name to this day.
Sir Moses, living in Ramsgate Kent, commissioned a local architect/builder W J Smith to design Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Smith had worked for Edward Pugin, the son of the renowned architect Augustus Pugin, also of Ramsgate, who designed (amongst other things) the Houses of Parliament. Two years later the Montefiore Windmill was constructed alongside Mishkenot, with millwrights being brought out from Canterbury. This mill was intended to provide both employment and flour for the new residents.
The fortress-like design of Mishhkenot, with its crenellated walls, echoed that of the Old City. Its name means ‘Peaceful Dwellings’, however the first Jews to arrive only stayed during the day, scuttling back to the City at night to avoid Beduin marauders and wild animals. Despite its citadel-like appearance it could not provide them with security. It took another three decades until the adjoining land of Yemin Moshe was developed and the Jews came to stay. This part of the project was funded by Montefiore’s descendants.
I can only scratch the surface when trying to encapsulate Montefiore’s life and work, for he lived until almost 101 years of age, and from the age of 40 when he retired from work, was constantly engaged in supporting his co-religionists abroad, not to mention the many foundations he established and helped in England.
The Montefiores had lived in Italy since the 16th century. His grandfather came to England in 1758, successfully establishing the family business and their standing in society. In 1784 Moses was born in Livorno whilst his parents were visiting Italy. As a Jew he could not become either a professional or an academic. Instead he elected to pursue a career in commerce, being apprenticed to a counting house. Later he became one of only twelve Jewish brokers allowed on the London Exchange.
In 1812 he married Judith Cohen, a relative of the Rothschilds – a link that undoubtedly helped him make his fortune before his 40th year. He claimed that his marriage was a ‘heavenly paradise’ which they enjoyed for the next fifty years. Judith was a remarkable woman, who spoke fluent French, German and Italian, could translate and read Hebrew and was talented in the arts. She was Ashkenazi – he Sephardi. Such was his belief in the unity of his people that whenever a couple married in his synagogue he would give them money and if it was a ‘mixed’ marriage, like his own, he doubled it.
They were both deeply committed to Judaism. They never had children, but were lifelong companions travelling extensively to further their philanthropic ideals. He entered the international scene with his intervention concerning the Damascus Blood Libel. On other journeys he met the Sultan of Morocco, the Pope, the Czar of Russia, the Ottoman Sultan and others for the purpose of improving the conditions of suffering and oppressed Jews. He was universally respected by royalty and potentates. He was knighted as Sheriff of London, a title that went with the post – and later was raised to the baronetcy for his noble deeds on his return from Damascus.
He made seven visits to the Holy Land establishing many other projects. Today I complain about the inconveniences of travel by air, but I cannot begin to imagine the enormity of travel by horse and carriage which was his mode of transport. His carriage, on display at the windmill,was destroyed by fire in 1986 but restored to its former glory using fragments of the original.
Once back in London I realised that no story about Sir Moses could be complete without my paying a visit to Ramsgate, for in as much as he was passionate about his Jewish heritage he was a proud and loyal Englishman. Aged 26 he joined the Surrey Militia for four years during which time he learned to play the bugle and studied French.
In Ramsgate he lived in East Cliff Lodge, formerly the summer residence of the then Princess of Wales. Queen Victoria holidayed there as a girl and was given a golden key by Montefiore to enter his garden as there was no space to walk and exercise her dog in the property where she was staying.
Interior or synagogue
It is difficult to imagine that this small seaside town, today somewhat more than past its prime, was once the epitome of elegance. His house no longer exists, but the synagogue and mausoleum he built can be visited. The synagogue services, being in the Sephardi tradition, were based on those at Bevis Marks, London where Montefiore prayed regularly and occupied most of the honorary positions during his lifetime. The synagogue was the first in Britain to be designed by a Jewish architect – Montefiore’s cousin David Mocatta, who was also appointed as the architect for the London and Brighton Railway, designing not only its HQ at Brighton, but ten other stations on the line.
The small synagogue, of Regency design, is delightfully intimate with marble lined walls, an octagonal glass dome, red plush upholstery and stained glass windows. One unexpected feature is the Montefiore Coat of Arms which, whilst conforming to British tradition, has certain elements depicting Judaism and Israel, in particular and the lion rampant and stag hold pennants with ‘Jerusalem’ written in Hebrew.
The design of the Mausoleum, which Sir Moses commissioned and where he and his wife Lady Judith are buried is based on the tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem. The original was restored by Lady Montefiore. In 2012 this tranquil setting became the source of controversy when descendants of Sir Moses proposed that both bodies should be exhumed and taken to Jerusalem to be interred near the Windmill. This idea was fiercely opposed in Ramsgate on the basis that Sir Moses expressly wished to be buried alongside his wife in Ramsgate. Despite visiting Jerusalem he never intimated that he might want to live or be buried there. To date he and his wife are still resting in peace in Ramsgate.
Interior of Mausoleum
The more I read about this eminent couple the more I was impressed by the astounding energy with which they pursued their objectives. Both wrote diaries and Sir Moses wrote poetry at the beginning and end of each day and Lady Judith produced a cookbook – “The Jewish Manual of Cookery by a Lady”. They displayed an industry and passion in everything they did and little time was ever wasted. The impact that they had on future generations was profound. Were I to choose ‘special dinner guests’, they must certainly be at the top of the list.