Friday, September 24, 2010

Meeting Abigail Green

I understand that you are related to your subject Moses Montefiore?
Yes. He was my great great great great great uncle.
Tell us a bit about your own backgroun

I was born and bred in London, and since my father isn't Jewish and my mother's family have been here for 200 years that makes me a very English Jew. My mother was brought up in the Sephardi congregation, but she didn't feel she could stay after she married out, and so she joined West London Synagogue which, ironically, is the Reform synagogue Montefiore's brother Horatio helped to found. My husband's Sephardi too, so we got married in the Sephardi synagogue at Bevis Marks. The rabbi was delighted!

When did you decide to write this book?
About 10 years ago. Of course I had always known about Montefiore, but I became intrigued by him as a historical figure when working as a research assistant for Niall Ferguson's History of the House of Rothschild.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I wrote the first half of the book in my office at Brasenose [Oxford University], but when I became a mother I began working at home when my daughter napped.

Is this your first book?
No. My first book was Fatherlands: State-building and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Germany about identity formation in non-Prussian Germany during the pre-unification period (to c. 1870). Jews did not feature at all, which may be one reason why I wrote this book.

What is your next project?
I'm still narrowing it down, but probably something to do with 19th century humanitarianism.

Let's talk a bit about Montefiore the man. Would he be someone you would enjoy having at your Shabbat dinner table? What was he like?

He was well known for his old-fashioned courtesy so I'm sure he would have been a great Shabbat guest. And of course he was striking -- well over 6 ft even in old age, [though] his dress sense remained stuck in the 1820s.

I always imagined him sounding a bit like my grandfather. I can tell from the way he transliterated Hebrew words in his diary that he pronounced them in exactly the same way.

As to what he was like, I suspect that changed over time. Judith [his wife] liked him, and since I never came across anyone with a bad word to say about her I think we have to take that seriously. He was probably much more fun in his 20s and 30s, when he made friends with some really interesting (if earnest) characters. But as he became older he inevitably became much more rigid. Perhaps he made up for it by having so many interesting stories to tell.

Was it religious fervor that drove his vehement opposition to the establishment of a Reform congregation in London?

No, it was also about keeping the Sephardi community together – I think in many ways that was more important. Almost all the reformers came from Bevis Marks and most of them were Montefiore's relatives, so it was a very bitter thing.

What would it have been like to travel with Montefiore?

To begin with Montefiore and Judith only took a couple of servants with them, and they weren't particular about keeping kosher (although they seem to have avoided bacon). That changed as they became more religious, and after 1846 Montefiore never travelled anywhere without his own shochet. A lot depended on where he was travelling. When he visited Morocco in 1864, he took the train most of the way through France and Spain so he didn't need a lot of people with him, but it was very unusual for Europeans to travel in the Moroccan interior and he crossed the desert from Essaouira to Marrakesh with an entourage of well over a hundred.

Was there a pattern to the type of women Montefiore sought out for his dalliances?

We only have names for two of them, so it's hard to generalize. But neither were Jewish, which I think is not surprising. One was married and the other was a servant. Family legend has it that there were lots of Montefiore "by-blows" [offspring of unmarried parents] wandering round Ramsgate and its surroundings, so I tend to think he dallied with the lower orders -- which would have been very Victorian.

Could you explain why the bulk of the records of this obsessively organized man -- his logs, his meticulous files -- came to be burned upon his demise by a rabbi acting under instructions of Montefiore's nephew Sir Joseph Sebag-Montefiore?

No one really knows, but I find it hard to believe that Montefiore himself ordered it after taking so much trouble over his paperwork.

Was someone trying to protect his reputation?

George Collard, who claims to be an illegitimate descendant of Montefiore’s, likes to think that there was material relating to illegitimate offspring among the papers that were destroyed. Perhaps, but the surviving Montefiore diaries do not contain any kind of intimate information and it is by no means clear that he would have kept a record of any affaires of the heart.

On the other hand, Montefiore’s correspondence would have contained a great many very mundane letters of little interest to anyone. I find it more probable that Montefiore’s nephew simply couldn’t see the point of most of it – especially since so much would have been in languages he could not understand. He certainly made sure that those documents that did survive were those of most interest to him -- his own letters to Montefiore, a diary entry relating to his marriage, material relating to the Damascus Affair, correspondence with the great and good of the non-Jewish world.

How did Montefiore become a Jewish celebrity on a global scale?

That's a big question. People like Dona Gracia and Moses Mendelssohn had big reputations in the parts of the Jewish world, and Shabbatai Zevi managed to bridge the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide. But I think Montefiore was the first global Jewish celebrity because this was a more global age and because he was also a celebrity in the non-Jewish world. Imperialism and the communications revolution (press,
telegraph, steam and rail) were probably the most important underlying factors.

What distinguished him from the "court Jews" of an earlier era?

The key difference was that he was out in the open. In 1846 a Russian Hassid suggested he should just have bribed the government to improve the situation of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, which would have been the traditional way of doing things; Montefiore was appalled because his whole approach was about honorable publicity.

What was his biggest miscalculation as a Jewish leader?

Travelling to St. Petersburg to congratulate Alexander II on the bicentenary of Peter the Great in the aftermath of the Odessa pogrom of 1872.

And his biggest achievement?

The firman of 1840 [decree issued by the Sultan decrying the false blood libels] was his single greatest achievement, but his achievements as a mobilizer -- of money and public opinion -- were more significant in the long run.

How would you characterize his answer to the perennial "Jewish question"?

I think it changed over time. To begin with, he looked to gradual emancipation and social integration which is why he tried to get Jews in Russia and Turkey to learn Russian and Ottoman, but by the 1880s this was looking increasingly unrealistic in places like Russia and Romania, and even in Western Europe the situation was coming unstuck. That's why he supported the early Zionists and put his faith in the messiah.

Is it remotely conceivable that a leader of his stature and style could arise and wield comparable influence today?

No. The Jewish world is much, much more divided now than it ever was in Montefiore's time -- then it was still possible for one man to speak to a multitude of different religious and cultural constituencies in the same voice.

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