Tag Archives: English Jews

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: Ludwig Guttman

Founder of the Paralympic Games

Ludwig Guttman (1899-1980) was born to a German-Jewish family in what is now Poland. After serving in World War I, he volunteered at a hospital and first encountered a paraplegic patient. This inspired him to go to medical school and he went on to become a renowned neurosurgeon, specializing in spinal cord injuries and paralysis. He also taught at the University of Freiburg, where he supervised a Jewish fraternity that focused on fitness and physical training to give Jewish students more strength and confidence in the face of rampant anti-Semitism. When the Nuremberg Laws were passed by the Nazis, Guttman was stripped of his job and title. He was given an inferior position at the Breslau Jewish Hospital, where he eventually became the medical director. During Kristallnacht, Guttman witnessed the desecration of his synagogue and the abuse of his fellow congregants. That night, he admitted 64 Jewish patients that took refuge in his hospital, and was able to save 60 of them from deportation by the SS agents that came the next day. The following year, the Nazis gave him a visa and sent him on a medical mission to Portugal. Guttman never returned to Germany, and settled in England instead. He joined the Nuffield Department of Neurosurgery in Oxford. Guttman came up with the idea of turning paraplegic patients over in their beds every two hours to prevent bed sores, a small move that drastically cut the mortality rate. In 1943, the Royal Air Force asked Guttman to found and head the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital to look after injured pilots who commonly had spinal problems. It was here that Guttman realized how sports could be a powerful tool for rehabilitation. In 1948, he organized the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled war veterans, a huge success. Four years later, he turned it into an international event, and in 1956 was recognized by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) for his pioneering work. The Stoke Mandeville Games became an official part of the 1960 Rome Olympics, and by 1984 was known as the Paralympic Games. (When host city Mexico refused to hold the games in 1968, Guttman arranged for them to be held in Israel). Guttman founded what would become the English Federation of Disability Sport, as well as the International Spinal Cord Society. He was the first editor of the scientific journal Spinal Cord. The Guttmann Institute in Barcelona is named after him, as is the Ludwig Guttmann Prize awarded by the German Medical Society for Paraplegia. He was the subject of a BBC documentary called The Best of Men, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966. There are currently over 4400 athletes competing at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, the largest ever.

Words of the Week

It might seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.
Paul Davies, renowned physicist

Russian commemorative stamp of Ludwig Guttman, in its “Sports Legends” series released before the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

Jew of the Week: Brian Epstein

The Fifth Beatle

Brian Samuel Epstein (1934-1967) was born in Liverpool, England to a Jewish family of Russian and Lithuanian heritage. His father had expanded the family furniture store to sell musical instruments, and it was here that Paul McCartney’s father bought a piano for his son. Brian Epstein was expected to go into the family business, too, but convinced his parents to allow him to go to acting school in London. He didn’t like it, and returned to Liverpool to run the family’s new NEMS music store. Epstein worked hard to make it the most successful music store in Northern England. He soon became familiar with a new local band, The Beatles (all of whom bought music at his store), and for his 21st birthday booked a party at The Cavern Club where they played. He immediately fell in love with the group, and considered managing them, even though his assistant thought they were “absolutely awful”. Nonetheless, Epstein returned regularly to the club over the next three weeks to watch the band, before proposing to become their manager. He drew up a five-year contract—technically for their parents since The Beatles were all under 21 and needed consent. Epstein got to work right away, transforming their image from a “scruffy crowd in leather” who cursed, drank, and smoked on stage, to wearing suits and presenting a “fresh” vibe. (John Lennon didn’t want to wear a suit but then said he would “wear a bloody balloon if somebody’s going to pay me.”) For nearly a year, the band made no money and Epstein paid for all of their expenses. Over that time, Epstein met with executives from Columbia Records, EMI, and several other big labels, all of whom rejected The Beatles. Eventually, Epstein threatened to stop selling EMI records at his stores, so EMI agreed to a cheap, “nothing to lose” recording contract through their smaller Parlophone label. The Beatles began recording in June of 1962, and the rest is history. Epstein guided the group and took care of them, kept them focused, set up the branding that launched “Beatlemania”, and ultimately made the Beatles the best-selling and most influential music band in history. In turn, the band loved and trusted their manager, and never even read the contracts he brought them to sign. (“We had complete faith in him when he was running us,” said Lennon.) Epstein was the best man at both Lennon’s and Ringo Starr’s weddings. (Contrary to popular belief, the latter is not Jewish.) Epstein worked round-the-clock, and soon became dependent on both stimulants and sedatives. In 1967, days after sitting shiva for his father, he took a large dose of sedatives which, though normal for him, mixed fatally with the large amount of alcohol he had drunk. His death was officially ruled an accident, and biographers have since refuted rumours of suicide. Whatever the case, The Beatles were devastated by the loss of their manager, and never recovered. The band soon fell apart. Paul McCartney would later describe Epstein as “The Fifth Beatle”. The Bee Gees wrote the song ‘In the Summer of His Years’ as a tribute to Epstein, who played a small but critical role in their success as well.

Words of the Week

If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.
– Jean-Paul Sartre