Tombs, palaces, poverty and plague: Follow Montefiore’s early Holy Land travels
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Tombs, palaces, poverty and plague: Follow Montefiore’s early Holy Land travels

The British-Jewish philanthropist’s 1839 visit to pre-state Israel helped inspire his establishment of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem’s first modern Jewish neighborhood

  • The city of Safed in northern Israel. It was one of the first sights Moses Montefiore and his wife, Lady Judith, encountered in pre-state Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The city of Safed in northern Israel. It was one of the first sights Moses Montefiore and his wife, Lady Judith, encountered in pre-state Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The windmill plaza promenade in Jerusalem's historical Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The windmill plaza promenade in Jerusalem's historical Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The windmill plaza in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood of Jerusalem, which was first established in 1860. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The windmill plaza in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood of Jerusalem, which was first established in 1860. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Montefiore and his wife, Lady Judith, rode horses through the rough Galilee terrain after setting out from Lebabnon during their 1839 visit. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Montefiore and his wife, Lady Judith, rode horses through the rough Galilee terrain after setting out from Lebabnon during their 1839 visit. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A street in Safed, northern Israel. Montefiore met leading religious figures in the city at the start of his 1839 visit. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A street in Safed, northern Israel. Montefiore met leading religious figures in the city at the start of his 1839 visit. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The 16th-century Abuhav Synagogue in Safed. When Montefiore visited the city, its 4,000 Jews comprised about half of its population. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The 16th-century Abuhav Synagogue in Safed. When Montefiore visited the city, its 4,000 Jews comprised about half of its population. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Jerusalem Winery tasting room, housed in Mishkenot Sha’ananim's historical windmill. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Jerusalem Winery tasting room, housed in Mishkenot Sha’ananim's historical windmill. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Jerusalem's Old City seen from the Mount of Olives. Montefiore took in this view on his trip but kept his distance from the Old City itself because of an outbreak of disease. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Jerusalem's Old City seen from the Mount of Olives. Montefiore took in this view on his trip but kept his distance from the Old City itself because of an outbreak of disease. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Mishkenot Sha’ananim windmill was restored several years ago and was modeled on a structure in Britain. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Mishkenot Sha’ananim windmill was restored several years ago and was modeled on a structure in Britain. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The view of Mount Zion from Mishkenot Sha’ananim's windmill plaza. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The view of Mount Zion from Mishkenot Sha’ananim's windmill plaza. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

You may have heard that Sir Moses (Moshe) Montefiore was the force behind Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighborhood outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. But were you aware that the wealthy English knight visited pre-state Israel seven times, most often with his wife, Lady Judith?

Dr. Louis Loewe, a linguist and author who was not only intimately acquainted with the couple but had even accompanied them on journeys around the world, greatly admired Sir Moses and Lady Judith. In a book, the “Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore,” which he published in 1890, he depicts them as a compassionate, caring, and observant Jewish couple that lived life to the full. They were also quite the wine connoisseurs. In fact, wine is mentioned in the diaries 24 different times.

One of their most interesting trips to the Holy Land, described in detail in Loewe’s book, took place in 1839. The volume abounds with descriptions of their overnights in tents, palaces and elegant homes. They rode horses atop mountains, along easy roads and atop barely discernible paths. The Plague was rampant that year, and they were careful to stay away from infected towns and villages.

Wherever the Montefiores went they distributed money and gifts, all the while taking the time to find out what their fellow Jews needed in order to improve what was very often a miserable existence. Quite possibly it was this trip that planted the seed for the eventual establishment of Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1860.

That pioneering neighborhood came equipped with a windmill produced in Canterbury, a copy of one that stood near the Montefiore estate. With its help, the residents were meant to grind wheat into flour and become self- sufficient. In 1892, more buildings were added and the new neighborhood was called Yemin Moshe.

Montefiore helped establish the Yemin Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem, the first Jewish community in the capital outside the Old City’s walls. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

From Beirut to Jerusalem

The couple landed in Beirut on May 11, 1839. From there, they rode south through Lebanon and Palestine until, veering slightly east, they finally got their first look at Safed. And what a look that was: from a distance, the town of Safed towers above the landscape, hugging the top of Mount Canaan and forming a little nest among the scenic hills. By the time the Montefiores arrived, Safed’s 4,000 Jews made up at least half of the town’s total population.

In Safed they visited the impressive, 16th century Abuhov. All kinds of legends have sprung up concerning the building which, according to legend, was first erected in Spain or Portugal by Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhov.

Moses Montefiore, painted by Henry Weigall in 1881. (Wikimedia commons/Public domain)

One story holds that some of the renowned rabbi’s students lived in Safed, and that shortly after Abuhov’s death in Spain they had a collective dream. In that dream, the rabbi complained to his pupils that his synagogue was surrounded by churches. After they awoke the students prayed together and the very next day the synagogue miraculously appeared in Safed.

While spending an afternoon gathering information about the possibilities for agriculture in the Galilee, Montefiore sat with Rabbi Avraham Dov. Rabbi Dov had served as spiritual head of the Ashkenazi synagogue in Safed during calamitous times. Among the catastrophes were a pogrom in 1834 that lasted over 30 days, and a devastating earthquake in 1837.

During their meeting, Rabbi Dov handed Montefiore a signed petition asking him to buy land for Jews to till, and Montefiore agreed to do his best to help the Jews buy land on which to establish farming settlements. (Montefiore succeeded so well, that he effectively laid the foundation for modern Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel.)

High above Safed

One day Montefiore and Judith visited a 19th-century Jewish farm, the first in the country in modern times. The farm was situated just outside of Safed on Mount Meron, which was then the highest peak in the territory. The farm belonged to Israel Bak, who immigrated from the Ukraine to Palestine in 1831, settled in Safed, and there established the first Hebrew printing press the country had seen in over 200 years.

Mount Meron, where Montefiore visited the first Jewish farm established in pre-state Israel in modern times. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1834 he started a thriving farm, but the 1837 earthquake and other calamities made it impossible to continue. Deserted in 1840, the site is now called Hirbet (ruin) Bak, and its remains sit along a northern nature trail.

There are 11 Jewish sages buried on Mount Meron, and that day the Montefiores visited at least two of their tombs. One belongs to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century sage who is famous for authoring a major book on Jewish mysticism.

In 135, the Romans crushed a Jewish revolt against their rule in the Holy Land. Bar Yochai was unable to accept Romans as the legitimate rulers, and spoke out against their anti-Jewish edicts. With a death sentence hanging over his head, he fled with his son to the nearby town of Pequiin – the only town in the land of Israel to have maintained a continuous Jewish presence for the past two millennia. Bar Yochai and son hid out in a cave for 13 years, eating carobs from a tree that offered never-ending sustenance and drinking water from a spring that miraculously appeared.

Lag BaOmer is a holiday in May that marks the anniversary of Bar-Yochai’s passing. At that time, hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world flock to his tomb. Tradition holds that on this day, in that site, their supplications are sure to be answered.

A cave near the town of Pequiin in northern Israel where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is said to have hid from the Romans for 13 years. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The couple’s second stop was at Hillel’s grave. A first century sage who was particularly lenient in his interpretations of Jewish law, Hillel is remembered for inventing the Golden Rule: “”That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. “ He also came up with one of our favorites: “Do not judge another until you are in his place.”

From Safed the couple rode to Tiberias. Here they spent the night at the home of Chief Rabbi Haim Nissim Abulafia, probably a descendant of the Haim Abulafia who moved to Tiberias from Turkey in 1740 at the age of 80.

Abulafia had come to Tiberias at the invitation of Daher el Omar, a Bedouin sheikh who ruled the Galilee in the mid-18th century. Aware that he needed a financial structure if Tiberias was to prosper, el Omar offered the rabbi both housing and the prospect of a synagogue if he would get things going. Abulafia brought along his family and 10 students, and in 1782 built the historic Etz Haim Synagogue. Within a few decades the Abulafia family was joined by large numbers of Polish Jews.

The Etz Haim synagogue in Tiberias, built by Rabbi Haim Nissim Abulafia in 1782. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Ancient olive shade

It took several days for Montefiore and Lady Judith to reach Jerusalem after that, and they frequently spent the night out in the open air (in tents, of course).

One overnight was spent in a field near the Samarian town of Sinjil. The name probably refers to a Crusader knight who camped here with his troops in 1099. Born in France in the town of Saint-Gilles, he was deeply religious, and enthusiastically took part in the siege and capture of Jerusalem, including the subsequent massacre of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants.

Because the Plague was still raging inside the walls of Jerusalem, the couple set up shop on the Mount of Olives. From this vantage point they had a fantastic view of the Old City across the riverbed. Shade was provided by olive trees so old that some believe they witnessed the agony of Jesus of Nazareth on his last night on earth (Christian Bible, Mark 14: 32-36).

One day the two rode through the Kidron Valley, visiting its impressive monuments and ancient tombs. The next day they ventured into the traditional site of David’s tomb (on Mount Zion, outside of the city walls).

The path into the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Finally, on the 12th of June, they entered Jerusalem and after visits and prayers at several synagogues, they returned to the Mount of Olives. The next few days were spent in Hebron, and at the Cave of the Patriarchs. And on June 20th, they began the journey back to Beirut.

For good reason, many a town, village, neighborhood and street in Israel is named for Moshe Montefiore. So is Windmill Plaza, a beautiful overlook and promenade in Jerusalem located directly above Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe and right next to his historic windmill – restored, a few years ago, to its original state.

For as long as we can remember, the interior of the windmill boasted a fascinating little museum on the life and works of Montefiore. Today, however, the windmill houses the Jerusalem Winery Tasting Room which sells, among other labels, Windmill Wines!

We have heard it said that Montefiore drank a bottle of wine a day: perhaps that is the secret of a long and uniquely fruitful life that only ended when he reached the ripe old age of 101.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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