Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award Winner Dr. Abigail Green wrote about the making of a good biography and traveling in the footsteps of Montefiore. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Sunday, June 17 will be Montefiore day in Ramsgate, the faded seaside resort where Sir Moses and his wife Judith lived for nearly 50 years. Ramsgate was incorporated in 1884, the year Montefiore turned 100, and the town’s most distinguished resident donated the new mayor’s chain of office — gold, as you would expect, but rather surprisingly made up of the Hebrew letter mem, Montefiore’s own initial. For the first time in many years, Ramsgate has its own mayor again — and the chain has reminded him of the town’s distinctive Jewish heritage. So Ramsgate has launched a Montefiore Heritage Society, and is inviting the great and good to commemorate the opening of Montefiore’s private synagogue there on June 17, 1833.
It’s good to see the town embracing its Jewish past because it hasn’t always been thus. And yet to Victorians, Montefiore and Ramsgate were synonymous. Before Montefiore’s arrival, this was a typical English working port, with a good beach and some gracious Georgian housing. By his death it had acquired not just a synagogue, but a replica of the Tomb of Rachel (where Montefiore mourned his own lamented Judith), a range of Jewish schools and boarding houses, and something called the Lady Judith Theological College, which was a cross between a yeshiva and an Oxford college. And of course there was East Cliff Lodge itself: Montefiore’s home, a neo-Gothic gentleman’s residence that was at once typically Victorian and full of the most extraordinary Judaica.
Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award Winner Dr. Abigail Green wrote about the making of a good biography. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
For the past 10 years I’ve been travelling the world in Moses Montefiore’s footsteps. This was a man who spent much of his (long) life on the road: Besides the usual round of European tourist destinations (Paris, Florence, Rome, Frankfurt and Berlin), he visited Jerusalem seven times in total and passed through innumerable Jewish communities as he embarked on politically motivated missions to places like St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Bucharest.
But what does it mean to travel in the footsteps of a man who’s been dead for over 120 years, and why bother? After all, it’s impossible to recreate the 19th-century travel experience in our world of cars, planes and high-speed trains. (I once met a Reform Rabbi who followed the Montefiores’ route during their first trip abroad; apparently it was very scenic, involving only minor roads.) More to the point, most of the places Montefiore visited have changed beyond all recognition. It’s not just that Bucharest is full of shabby, Ceausescu high-rise flats, or that a whole quarter of Marrakesh is devoted to glitzy hotels. The real problem is more fundamental. The shifting currents of world history mean that places that were once heartlands of the Diaspora are now barely Jewish places at all.
Dr. Abigail Green is the author of “Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context — books like Elisheva Carlebach’s “The Pursuit of Heresy,” which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or “Perfecting the World” — a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.
Of course, such books don’t necessarily make for easy reading.
A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was written by the author of “The Jewish Enlightenment,” a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.
This year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature finalists were announced this morning. Five nonfiction authors were on the shortlist for the biggest prize in Jewish letters ($100,000 for the winner and $25,000 for the runner-up), including Gal Beckerman, the Forward’s own opinion editor. The prize alternates between fiction and nonfiction.
Beckerman’s inclusion was not a huge surprise, since his book — reviewed by Donald Kimelman in the Forward — “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was awarded the 2010 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Book of the Year.