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David Shasha

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Finding Jewish Feminism in a Handbook from Victorian England

Posted: 05/13/10 12:47 PM ET

The modern history of British Jewry is linked to the efforts of the great Sephardic Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657), who came to London from his home in Amsterdam in 1655 to petition Oliver Cromwell for the Jews to be permitted to return to England since they were banished in 1290. Prior to the massive exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe to the West in the early 20th century, the British Jewish community continued to be dominated by the London Spanish-Portuguese community. It is not so well known that a Jew named Isaac Abendana (c. 1640-1710) taught Hebrew language and culture in Cambridge University. One of his students was the scientist and religious thinker Sir Isaac Newton.

This Anglo-Sephardic tradition, in the best Maimonidean fashion, had acculturated to the intellectual standards prevalent in the European Enlightenment. Represented by the eminent Rabbi David Nieto (1657-1728) and illustrious figures like Rabbis Benjamin Artom (1835-1879) and Raphael Meldola (1849-1915), the London community was one of the most vigorous of European Jewry in the early modern age.

In the 19th century we can point to the great Moses Angel (1819-1898), head of the Jews' Free School, who in 1858 published a brilliant exegesis of the weekly Pentateuch readings and the Jewish holy days called The Law of Sinai and Its Appointed Times. The culture of British Jews at that time was based on the values of Maimonides and his synthesis of Torah and scientific standards that is best described by the term "Religious Humanism."

Interestingly, the European Sephardim in the 18th century exerted a strong influence upon the German Jews who also sought to acculturate to their model of Religious Humanism. Eschewing the religious obscurantism and extremism of the Eastern European Ashkenazi tradition, figures like the brilliant philosopher and educator Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) aspired to bring Judaism into the modern age. This synthesis led to acrimonious debates in Ashkenazi circles that continue to this day, but it informed Sephardic culture well into the 19th century.

In Victorian England we meet up with two Jewish women, Grace Aguilar (1816-1847), who died tragically at a very young age after composing scores of books and essays on Jewish themes, and Judith Montefiore (1784-1862), whose cookbook The Jewish Manual was thankfully rediscovered and republished in the early 1980s.

Lady Judith was the Ashkenazi-born wife of the legendary Sephardic Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), who is widely known in history for his great charitable works and his passionate advocacy on behalf of the persecuted Jews all over the world. Less known is the story of his wife Judith, who served as a purveyor of Victorian Jewish values.

We have wrongly tended to demonize and belittle Victorian values as just some hypocrisy and moral priggishness. But in the Sephardic community these values served to recall the traditions of Spain and the Muslim East. In the work of Moses Angel, we get a strong sense of these values:

True faith, as our ancestors taught us, must precede reason, but also true that reason must follow faith. Faith without reason is like those golden fruits which are tempting to the eye but rotten at the core. Reason without faith would resemble that motion into eternal space which depended on projection without attraction; it would be aimless and endless. Reason and faith conjoined form that lovely combination which resembles the pure mind in the pure body; the inner life is as unsullied as the outward frame is consistent with harmony.

The beauty of Religious Humanism was the way in which it brought together rational ethics with the inherited principles of tradition and custom.

Judith Montefiore's The Jewish Manual is a fascinating document of Victorian Jewish England. The bulk of the book is given over to a collection of recipes and domestic advice for the Jewish homemaker. In the recipes we see a curious synthesis of Sephardi and Ashkenazi culinary traditions. This synthesis very much reflected the reality of the London Jewish community of that time which brought together the families of Iberia and the Rhineland based on the common religious culture that we have described.

Lady Montefiore was as much at home making a kugel she was finding new ways to add chorizo to her recipes. Significantly, her cookbook takes great pains to adjust non-Kosher recipes for use in the Kosher kitchen. Her world was one in which Orthodox Judaism was to be adapted to the Gentile world and not remain cloistered in some ghetto. It was a Judaism that embraced the wider culture while maintaining high standards of traditional observance.

After she reviews the basic recipes that she thinks the Jewish cook should know, the book provides a number of sections on beauty and physical comportment that are very interesting when seen in light of modern feminism.

In the chapter called "Dress" we read, "In dress, simplicity should be preferred to magnificence; it is surely more gratifying to be admired for a refined taste, than for an elaborate and dazzling splendour; - the former always produces pleasing impressions, while the latter only provokes criticism."

On the surface this statement comports perfectly with the Victorian ideal. At a deeper level it reflects the traditional Jewish ideal of modesty, but modesty in the context of good taste and refined elegance. It must be remembered that The Jewish Manual is a book written for a cultured Jewish community and assumes a relatively affluent middle class audience. It is not some religious hectoring to conform to outmoded values. The Montefiores were very wealthy people and traveled in elite circles. And yet we see here that the ideal was not in conspicuous glamour, but in the humble trappings of simple couture.

In the final chapter of the book, entitled "Influence of the Mind as Regards Beauty," Lady Montefiore's Maimonidean classicism truly comes to the fore:

Symmetry of form is a rare and exquisite gift, but there are other conditions quite as indispensable to beauty. Let a woman possess but a very moderate share of personal charms, if her countenance is expressive of intellect and kind feelings, her figure buoyant with health, and her attire distinguished by a tasteful simplicity, she cannot fail to be eminently attractive, while ill health - a silly or unamiable expression, and a vulgar taste - will mar the effect of form and features the most symmetrical.

The values that are reflected in this advice to the Victorian Jewish woman are both timeless and prescient. Rejecting the idea that a woman's true beauty lies in her carnal charms, Lady Montefiore extols the centrality of intelligence as her most important feature.

Such an articulation of individual morality is both ancient and modern at the same time.

It is startling to see such a proto-feminist attitude coming from a wealthy Jewish woman in Victorian England. But in the richly textured Sephardi-based culture of that society, perfectly articulated by a noble woman of German Jewish birth, that is just what we find.

The Jewish Manual is now mostly read by specialists in the field of Jewish cuisine and lifestyle, but we would do well to see it as emblematic of a Jewish civilization whose Orthodox practices were fused with the values of secular modernity; a perfect confluence of the old and the new.