The ProsenPeople

Montefiore’s Ramsgate

Friday, May 11, 2012 | Permalink
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. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. 

Sunday June 17th will be Montefiore day in Ramsgate, the faded seaside resort where Sir Moses and his wife Judith lived for nearly fifty 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.

My cousin Robin Sebag-Montefiore was born in East Cliff Lodge, and my mother’s elderly relatives can still remember playing in its fabulous gardens during their school holidays. Others have told me how the whole Jewish community was invited to the house for Sukkot, and of the wonderful tea parties held on its lawns. But Robin’s father died when he was 3, and his young widow sold the house and much of its contents. Like so many grand houses it fell into decay – occupied by the army during the Second World War, sold to the Borough of Ramsgate in 1952 and demolished in 1954. All that remains now are the greenhouses – ambitious, curved, glass buildings that predate the Crystal Palace. The Judith College suffered a similar fate. It was training North African rabbis as late as the 1950s, but demolished in 1961, when the Sephardi community chose to transfer its activities to London. 

And so it is that I mostly associate Ramsgate with funerals. Because the Montefiores are the only members of London’s Sephardi community who still chose to be buried here. It’s strange visiting a cemetery where so many family members are buried close together, and its strange burying so many family members so far away from their loved ones that for most of the year their graves lie forgotten and unvisited. 

I’m glad there are others now to remember the Montefiore past: to visit the greenhouses, and to walk down the steep footpath, past the synagogue and on towards the cemetery; to stop for a pint at The Montefiore Arms before heading on to catch a glimpse of the sea.

Dr. Abigail Green is Lecturer (CUF) in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford University. She is the 2011 Choice Award winner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

Jewish Journeys

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award Winner Dr. Abigail Green wrote about the making of a good biography. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For the past ten 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 nineteenth 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.

And yet, it was worth the trouble. I found no echo of Montefiore’s visit when I travelled through Poland and Lithuania, but the scale of Jewish absence helped me to understand the ways in which twentieth century developments had erased his achievements. Sitting through Shabbat services in Rome’s empty Great Synagogue and the even emptier Choral Temple in Bucharest, I could not fail to notice the ways in which synagogue architecture paid tribute to the aesthetic values of the non-Jewish world. Nothing could have prepared me for the florid extravagance of the former or the delicate, Byzantine beauty of the latter – surely the most beautiful synagogue in which I have ever been privileged to sit. Only retracing the boundaries of Rome’s ancient Ghetto could have shown me how pitifully small it was. Only by visiting the tiny Moroccan sea-port of Essaouira could I appreciate the rocky isolation of this wealthy entrepot that was once home to so many of Moroccan Jewry’s financial and commercial elite.

If anything, then, I regret the places I left unvisited. Damascus and Alexandria are only names to me. But if I close my eyes I can see the golden sands of the beach that is the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira; I can see the crumbling stone fantasies of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; and I can see streets of the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, empty now but in Montefiore’s day teeming with vibrant, impoverished, contentious Jewish life.

Dr. Abigail Green is Lecturer (CUF) in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford University. She is the 2011 Choice Award winner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

Historians, Biographers

Monday, May 07, 2012 | Permalink

Dr. Abigail Green is the author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

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.

Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.

Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.

Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.

Dr. Abigail Green is Lecturer (CUF) in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford University. She is the 2011 Choice Award winner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Abigail Green

Monday, February 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In January, we announced the five finalists for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The winner of this prize receives $100,000 and the runner-up receives $25,000. Not too bad, eh?  We'll be announcing the winner later this month! In the meantime, we asked our finalists a few questions about their process, their audience, and the current books on their nightstand. First up is Abigail Green, author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero. The Rohr judges praised Moses Montefiore as "[a] monumental biography of Montefiore [that] provides a fascinating and comprehensive glimpse into the life and times of an amazing man.” Below, Abigail explains her personal connection to Montefiore and her role as a historian and a writer:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

The things I find challenging are: re-reading my research notes before I get started because it’s important to do it properly but it can be really boring; wearing my learning lightly because I’m writing for different audiences at the same time; and cutting, cutting, cutting the text because anything shorter is almost by definition better.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

The past.

Who is your intended audience?

It depends on the book. Montefiore is quite an eclectic book so it was meant for all sorts: Jewish readers, general readers, biography readers, amateur and professional historians. My mother was born a Montefiore and my husband’s father grew up in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem, when it was still a run-down neighbourhood. The original inhabitants were all evicted during the War of Independence to protect them from enemy gunfire. So this one’s for my family too.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Thinking, not writing as yet.

What are you reading now?

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse. It’s a Dutch historical novel set in fourteenth century France, written in the 1950s. And Liberalism, a Counter-History, by Domenico Losurdo.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

All good historians should also think of themselves as writers. I’m British and my interest in history was sparked by Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. I read Our Island Story - an early twentieth century history book for British children that is so wildly outdated that it recently came back into fashion. And I spent hours in a second-hand bookshop selling dusty historical novels opposite a medieval castle near where my grandparents lived.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

When a reviewer described my book as ‘one of the essential works on modern Jewish history.’ No historian could ask for more.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Once I’m underway with something, I can write pretty much anywhere. I gave birth to our first child when I was half way through writing Montefiore, so I wrote a lot of it at night.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I’d like them to think about the nineteenth century – and particularly the Jewish nineteenth century - in new ways.

Abigail Green is Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. She is nominated for Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year 2010 and a New Republic Best Book of 2010. Her first book Fatherlands: State-Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Germany, was shortlisted in Das Historisches Buch 2002. She lives in Oxford, England.