Category Archives: Business & Finance

Jews in the World of Business and Finance

Jew of the Week: Licoricia of Winchester

A Medieval Jewish Banking Pioneer

Licoricia (d. 1277) was born to a Jewish family in medieval England. After becoming widowed at a young age and being left with four children to take care of, she survived by working as a moneylender. As women did not have the legal right to be involved with banking at the time, she was able to cut deals using a male attorney. Licoricia grew her business rapidly. By 1242 her reputation was so impressive that she married David of Oxford—then the richest Jew in England—who actually divorced his wife, with permission from King Henry III, in order to marry Licoricia! Unfortunately, her new husband died just two years later and the king used the opportunity to imprison Licoricia in the Tower of London and extract from her a whopping 5000 marks. She paid the fine, and from it 4000 marks were used to rebuild Westminster Abbey. Licoricia returned to Winchester and further expanded her finance business. Aside from King Henry III, her other notable clients were Queen Eleanor of Provence and Simon de Montfort. In 1275, King Edward I prohibited Jews from moneylending. (This didn’t help him: while Jews only charged 2 or 3 percent interest, the Lombards that replaced them charged up to 50 percent!) Two years later, Licoricia was murdered in her home in an unsolved mystery. Licoricia’s son Benedict was the only Jew in medieval European history known to have become a guildsman, allowing him to be an official citizen and permitting him to own real estate. He was ultimately hanged. Her other son Asher was temporarily imprisoned in Winchester Castle, where he inscribed the following message on the wall of his cell that still survives today: “On Friday, eve of the Sabbath in which the [Torah] portion Emor is read, all the Jews of the land of the isle were imprisoned. I, Asher, inscribed this.” In 1290, King Edward expelled all Jews from England, and they would not return until the 1600s, partly thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel. Last week, the city of Winchester unveiled a statue of Licoricia, on Jewry Street in front of her historic home. At the base of the statue is the Torah verse to “love your fellow as yourself” in English and Hebrew.

12 Women in History Who Impacted Jewish Scholarship

Practical Jewish Meditation

Words of the Week

The worst offenders are preachers who preach and expound to the masses what they themselves do not understand. Would that they keep silent about what they do not know.

– Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”

Jew of the Week: Harold Grinspoon

The Philanthropist Behind PJ Library

Harold Grinspoon (Credit: Robert Charles Photography)

Harold Grinspoon (b. 1929) was born and raised in Newton, Massachusetts to a family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. He had a difficult childhood, struggling with dyslexia and rampant anti-Semitism, poverty, and losing his father at 19. While a student at Marlboro College, he had his first business idea: Putting together some meagre savings, he bought an old laundry machine and put it in the college dorm, charging 25 cents per load. Meanwhile, he worked on an ice cream truck and soon left school to manage a whole fleet of them. After serving in the Navy, Grinspoon bought his first property in 1959. He renovated it and rented out one of the units, and from there steadily built his real estate development business. He founded Aspen Square Management, now one of America’s top-50 private developers, with 15,000 apartments across 16 states. When diagnosed with cancer at age 59, Grinspoon realized he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life. He was particularly troubled by Jewish assimilation and intermarriage. Together with his wife, he founded the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to fund a variety of Jewish causes, and has since donated over $200 million. At one Passover seder, Grinspoon saw how excited his grandkids were to read Jewish books, and came up with the idea of sending a free Jewish book once a month to every Jewish home. Thus, in 2005 he launched PJ Library. Today, PJ Library operates around the world, delivering nearly 1 million free books each month to kids in some 30 countries. PJ Library also delivers popular Arabic-language books to Arab Israeli children. (It’s the largest Arabic book program in the world!) Meanwhile, PJ Library runs weekend and after-school programs, along with over 3000 events a year. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation funds other Jewish programs, too, including Jewish camps and day schools. In 2015, Grinspoon signed The Giving Pledge to donate more than half of his wealth. Grinspoon and his PJ Library have won a number of prestigious awards, including one from the Library of Congress. Grinspoon has been called “the most important Jewish philanthropist you’ve never heard of”. He is also an avid artist and sculptor, and is still very active at 92 years old. Sign up to PJ Library here!

Words of the Week

We are indignant when we are fooled by others but live comfortably with our unconscious desire for self-deceit.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jew of the Week: Manuel Pimental

King Henry’s Best Friend

Don Manuel Pimental (d. 1615) was born to a family of Sephardic Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity in the decades prior. Pimental became a wealthy merchant, trading with the Muslims under the name Isaac ibn Jakar. He soon converted back to Judaism, and did a lot of work on behalf of the many struggling Jewish communities at the time. Despite the ban on Jews living in France, he settled there anyway and became best friends with King Henry IV. The two played cards together regularly, and it is reported that after one 1608 game in the palace, King Henry said: “I am the king of France, but you are the king of gamblers!” Many didn’t like the fact that the king was so close to a Jew, but Henry defended his friend with the following words: “Those who honestly follow their conscience are of my religion, and mine is that of all brave and good men.” A couple of years later, a Catholic fanatic assassinated King Henry IV for being too friendly with Protestants and Jews. Pimental had to flee, and spent three years in Venice. He then joined his friend Samuel Pallache, the famed “pirate-rabbi”, in Amsterdam, and became one of the Jewish community’s leaders there. In 1614, Pimental purchased a plot of land to serve as the first official Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands. Ironically, when he passed away a year later, he was the first person to be buried there! (Pallache was the second.) Pimental played a large role in advancing the rights of Europe’s Jews, and helped transform Amsterdam into a Jewish haven that eventually became known as the “Jerusalem of Europe”.

Yom Kippur Begins Tonight – Gmar Chatima Tova!

9 Yom Kippur Myths and Misconceptions

Understanding the 5 Afflictions of Yom Kippur

Words of the Week

Neither security nor the development of the country is the true mission of the state. Those are only necessary conditions for the true mission… the ingathering of the exiles is the task and the destiny and the mission of the state of Israel. Without this endeavor it is emptied of its historical content and of no significance to the Jewish people in our day, in the generations that preceded us, and in the generations to come.
David Ben-Gurion

*The biography above is adapted from Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Ed Kritzler.