Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: From Moses Montefiore's Diary

No Jewish figure of the 19th century enjoyed so high a reputation among his own people as Sir Moses Montefiore. His many philanthropies, which continued throughout the whole of a fabulously long life (he died in 1885 in his hundred and first year), were only a part of the reason for this universal adulation. Certainly his preeminent position was not due to any unusual gifts of learning; his formal schooling had ended at the age of fourteen and, though very devout, he knew hardly more Hebrew than was required for the recitation of prayers. Nevertheless he was, by the common consent of such dissimilar communities as the English, Russian, and Moroccan Jewries, the representative Jew of his time.

The explanation of Montefiore’s preeminence is to be found in his position as inheritor and most distinguished occupant of the “office” of shtadlan—the influential Jew who pleads his people’s case in the courts of the mighty—which he performed on an international scale. In his unceasing labors in the Jewish cause at the courts of European and Near Eastern potentates he was always armed with the moral and official blessings of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s British government. Through him the humanitarian impulses and great international influence of Victorian England were turned to the defense of persecuted* Jewish communities all over the world.

During most of his active career Montefiore kept an almost daily diary of his activities. In 1890, after his death, this was published by his faithful companion and adviser, Dr. Louis Loewe. Dr. Loewe for the most part summarizes the entries of the original, occasionally adding comment from his own notes or personal memories of the occasions on which he accompanied the author. The resulting text is therefore not very illuminating as a picture of Montefiore. But it does make a fascinating traveler’s account of the Jewish communities of his time and affords an often bizarre view of the Christian and Mohammedan courts where he was generally received with great respect.

The first excerpt given below, dated 1840, is Montefiore’s description of his audience with the Sultan of Turkey, which was the high point of his efforts to defend the Jews of Damascus and Rhodes against ritual murder libels. The second excerpt, dated 1846, is Dr. Loewe’s description of part of the tour Montefiore made to Poland and Russia, on the invitation of the Russian government, to investigate the situation of the Jews of those countries.—Arthur Hertzberg

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Wednesday, October 28th [1840]—Sir David Wilkie, Mr. Pisani and George Samuel dined with us, and at seven afterwards we set out. Our cavalcade consisted of one carriage with four horses, and one with two horses, six kavasses or police officers, eight men carrying large wax torches, two horse-men with each coach, a sedan chair with each coach, and three men to close the procession. As the carriages could not drive up to our door I was carried in a sedan chair to the foot of the hill, the other gentlemen walked, and I was in the first carriage with Mr. Pisani, the British Dragoman; George Samuel, Mr. Wire, and Dr. Loewe in the second. I wore my full uniform. The streets were crowded; many of the Jews had illuminated their houses. We reached the Palace in rather less than an hour. On descending from the carriages we found in the courtyard a large guard of honour, who presented arms. We were shown into a handsome drawing room, furnished in European style. Two magnificent silver candlesticks with large wax candles stood on the ground in the centre of a richly embroidered velvet carpet. We had not been seated two minutes when Rechid Pasha entered; he was most friendly in his manner. We were soon joined by Riza Pasha, and all were served with coffee and pipes, the mouthpieces and bowls of the latter being richly embellished with diamonds.

Rechid Pasha asked me how long I remained at Alexandria, how often I had seen Mohammad Ali, and how he looked? In a few moments it was announced that the Sultan was ready to receive us. The two Pashas walked first, I next, and the rest of our party followed, a large throng of officers bringing up the rear.

We crossed a garden about sixty yards in length, and entered a handsome marble hall; having descended a grand staircase, likewise of marble, we entered into the presence chamber.

The Sultan was seated on a sofa, clad in his cloak of state, which was fastened at the neck with two large clasps of the finest diamonds. The cloak itself was of a violet colour, similar in cut to our own. He was a good-looking young man, and appeared about twenty-six years of age, though in reality but nineteen. The two Pashas took their station on his left, I and my party on his right. After having received some courteous signs of welcome from him, I delivered the speech I had intended to have read to him, but instead of reading it, I spoke it, as I knew it well by heart, and there was not sufficient light to read it without spectacles. I said as follows:—

May it please your imperial Majesty,—In the name of my brethren, who have deputed me, I come to lay at the foot of your Imperial Throne the grateful homage of their respect.

England, my country, and other enlightened nations of the earth, heard the cries of the suffering and persecuted Jews at Damascus and at Rhodes, and they hastened to offer to the sufferers their sympathy and affection. But the Lord God, who ruleth over all, prevented the necessity of their aid at Rhodes, and inspired your Imperial Majesty with wisdom, justice, and the love of truth. Under your righteous direction the oppressor was laid low, the designs of the wicked made known, and the innocent delivered. I therefore crave permission to offer to your Imperial Majesty the profound gratitude of the hearts of our people, and to utter our prayers that the merciful God may bless your Imperial Majesty with length of days, with wisdom, honour, and riches, and so direct all your actions, that your name may be inscribed in golden characters for ever, and the memory of your deeds smell as sweet as a garden of roses.

In ancient times the Lord God brought our people out of Egypt, and for ages they dwelt in Palestine; to them were committed the oracles of God, and though now dispersed among the nations of the earth, they are numbered with the most peaceful and loyal subjects, and by their industry they have augmented the riches and prosperity of the countries in which they live.

They look with love and veneration upon that land where their forefathers dwelt; they pray that all who live therein may enjoy the shadow of your sublime protection, and in peace be permitted to worship the God of their fathers.

Their prayers ascend to Him whose wisdom is absolute, whose decrees are fixed and immutable, whom none can withstand, imploring that He will make your enemies eat the dust, that they may vanish as the morning dew, and flee away as chaff before the wind; that your throne may endure for ever, and that all who live under your sceptre may have peace, sitting under their own vine and their own fig-tree, none daring or wishing to make them afraid.

The Sultan listened with great attention, and as soon as I had finished, Mr. Pisani repeated it in Turkish. The Sultan smiled whilst he was reading, and showed that he well understood the address and was pleased with it. As soon as Mr. Pisani had concluded, the Sultan fixed his eyes on me, and spoke in a mild and pleasing voice. “I am perfectly satisfied,” he said, “with the communication made and the sentiments expressed by the deputation.

“I have been affected by the events which have taken place in Damascus, but I have endeavoured to offer some satisfaction to the Israelitish nation, by giving orders that justice should be done in the affair of Rhodes.

“The Israelitish nation shall always have, from me, the same protection and enjoy the same advantages as all other subjects of my Empire.

“I will grant the deputation the firman they have asked.

“I know, gentlemen, how to appreciate the pure philanthropy which has led you to the capital.”

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Having given his reply, the Sultan requested me to come nearer. Rechid Pasha again presented me by name. The Sultan smiled most graciously, and said, “Present your friends to me.” I first presented George Samuel, my relative, then Mr. Wire of the city of London, and Dr. Loewe. When Mr. Pisani repeated the last name and the Doctor made a bow, Mr. Pisani informed the Sultan that the Doctor had presented to the late Sultan a translation of the hieroglyphical inscription on the Obelisk in the Hippodrome. The Sultan spoke with Rechid Pasha to explain it, and then said he remembered seeing it, and seemed much pleased, and said the Doctor must be a learned man.

The Sultan could not have given us a more flattering reception; it was at the same time most dignified. The room in which he received us was well proportioned, and neatly furnished in European style. The curtains were of rich yellow satin and embroidered damask and velvet, most probably of French manufacture; the carpet was English; there were two large wax torches standing in elegantly carved candelabras. We descended a flight of marble stairs, and were shown into a large and handsome room, splendidly furnished, and more brilliantly illuminated than the other room.

We chatted with Rechid and Riza Pashas, expressed our thanks to them for their great kindness in procuring for us at so unusual a time an audience with His Imperial Majesty, and our gratitude to His Majesty for his gracious reception and reply. I asked Rechid Pasha when I might hope to receive the firman which the Sultan had promised me, as I was most desirous of returning to England the moment I got it. He replied that he supposed I should not go before the next steamer left (on the 7th of November), and that I should have it by that time; but as it was the Ramazan, there was some difficulty in preparing it. We returned in state as we came, the guard of honour saluting us as we passed them in the court of the palace. We were again served, after the audience, in the lower room of the palace with sherbet in elegant glasses, and we had splendidly embroidered table napkins. A military band played during the greater part of the time we were at the Palace. We found the streets still more crowded than when we went; not a window in the whole street through which we passed by but was filled with female faces. As we approached the Jewish street we experienced even more difficulty in passing. At the end of the same street Signor Commundo, with the ecclesiastical chief of Galata and about twenty of our acquaintances, insisted on walking with us to our house. I was delighted to see my dear Judith, and to acquaint her with our happy reception and the complete success of our Mission, for which we return our grateful thanks to Heaven.

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Friday, May 8th [1846]—The representatives of the Hebrew congregation of this town [Vilna], together with those of other Hebrew congregations from some of the principal towns in Russia, under the presidency of the Chief Rabbi, held a meeting for the purpose of examining the papers which had been prepared for presentation to Sir Moses, in reply to the charges brought against them at St. Petersburg. It was arranged to request Sir Moses to appoint the following day, in the evening, after the termination of the Sabbath, for their reception, and to invite the writer of these lines to address the congregation on the following morning in the principal Synagogue of the town, so as to afford to thousands of their brethren and visitors the opportunity of becoming acquainted with any suggestion which it might be deemed desirable to communicate to them relative to the Mission of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore.

With this view a deputation waited on Sir Moses, and he agreed to receive them at the appointed time. The same deputation also brought me the invitation to deliver an address in their Synagogue, which I willingly accepted.

Saturday, May 9th—Divine service was held in the apartments of Sir Moses early in the morning. In the afternoon, at about two o’clock, he and Lady Montefiore proceeded to the Synagogue, where I delivered the address in the presence of a very large assembly of members of various communities and visitors. In the evening all the representatives of Wilna, and those of the principal towns in Russia, together with the gentlemen who wrote the reports in the Hebrew, French and Russian languages, and others of high standing in the community, headed by their Ecclesiastical Chief, presented the papers which Sir Moses was so anxiously expecting.

It is often a grave and exciting moment for those present in a court of justice, when the accused, however humble his station in life may be, pleads his cause and vindicates his innocence against a vigorous prosecutor; graver, however, and considerably more exciting was the seance which I now witnessed, when not merely a private individual, but the representatives of three millions of loyal subjects of the Emperor of Russia, pleaded their cause and vindicated their innocence against the most serious charges brought against them and their religious tenets by the Ministers of the Empire. I repeatedly noticed tears rolling down the cheeks of the venerable elders of the community. Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore themselves could hardly suppress their emotion.

Every word contained in the written statements had been translated by me into English, and the whole was read aloud to the assembly. Sir Moses addressed questions to the representatives of the various communities, and elicited numerous replies; but the more voluminous ones had to be taken away with us, to be read next day by Sir Moses on the road.

Thus many hours of the night passed; it was two o’clock in the morning when the conference terminated. Refreshments were handed round. Sir Moses drank to “better times, and to the health and prosperity of his brethren in Russia.” The Chief Rabbi, the representatives of the community, and all present shed tears at the contemplation of our departure.

Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore left many souvenirs to those who had so kindly attended them during their stay in Wilna, and sent hundreds of bottles of the best wine, and many kinds of meat, and cakes of every description to the hospitals. All the charitable institutions and all deserving cases were remembered by most generous gifts, and nothing more was left for him to do.

The favourable impression which the people of Wilna made on Sir Moses prompted him to say to those present, as he stepped into his carriage: “I leave you, but my heart will ever remain with you. When my brethren suffer, I feel it painfully; when they have reason to weep, my eyes shed tears.”

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At four o’clock in the morning, when no one in the town expected our departure, we left Wilna for Wilcomir. The recent rains had made the roads very bad; heavy sand and numerous ruts prevented our proceeding at the average rate of travelling. In one spot our conveyance stuck fast in a deep hole, and we were detained for fully half-an-hour. This unpleasant circumstance was much aggravated by the hundreds of poor Russian men, women, and children following the carriage for miles on the road. The more they had given to them, the more they appeared to want.

After a ride of seventy-six and a half versts we reached Wilcomir, where a deputation from the Hebrew community brought us wine and cake. The account which they gave of their brethren was but sorrowful. Of five hundred families, they said, one-fourth died last year from destitution.

We visited the school and charitable institutions, and next day continued our journey to Kowno.

Hundreds of persons, with lighted candles in their hands, greeted us on our arrival at Kowno. We found an elegant house prepared for us, all the rooms and passages brilliantly lighted with wax candles. The host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. Kadisohn, attended on Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore themselves. “We have not had,” Lady Montefiore said, “such beds or accommodation since leaving England.”

Sir Moses had an important interview with the Governor of the town respecting the employment of Jews to repair the high roads, they being willing to work for twenty kopeks a day, while labourers of other denominations receive thirty. We here received information regarding the Jews, in general, living in that district; and the representatives of the community, headed by their Chief Rabbi, supplemented this by numerous statements made to Sir Moses in writing.

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