Tag Archives: English Jews

Jew of the Week: Grace Aguilar

Defender of Judaism

Grace Aguilar (1816-1847) was born in London to descendants of Sephardic Jewish refugees who fled the Portuguese Inquisition. Her parents were active leaders of London’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. Grace was a sickly child, and seldom left her home for the first eight years of her life. During this time, she learned dance, piano and harp, and was tutored in Jewish studies and classical literature. She started writing at this time, too. As a teenager, her father taught her Hebrew and more advanced Jewish studies while she took care of him during a long bout with tuberculosis. She then took care of her ill mother, before being plagued with a serious case of measles starting at age 19. With her brothers away at boarding school, she bore the burden of caring for her parents and taking care of the family home. To raise more money, Aguilar strove to become a professional writer. Her first book, a collection of riddle-poems called The Magic Wreath of Hidden Flowers, was a huge success and launched her writing career. She then published a translation and explanation of an earlier Spanish work called Israel Defended, written to prevent Jews from converting to Christianity. Aguilar became good friends with future British prime minister (and former Jew of the WeekBenjamin Disraeli who helped her spread her writings. She soon convinced Isaac Leeser, editor of the popular Jewish magazine, The Occident, to publish her new book, The Spirit of Judaism, in 1842. The book was very popular both in America and England. Aguilar continued to write poetry, fiction, and treatises on Judaism. While she had become a bestseller, she still did not earn enough to care for her family, and had to work as a director of a Hebrew school. In 1845, Aguilar published Women of Israel, describing the lives of great Jewish women in history, and serving as an inspiration for countless Jewish women at the time. Some consider this to be her masterpiece. She followed that up with The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope, explaining the value and beauty of Judaism. Two years later, Aguilar was struck with spinal paralysis. She had already planned to set out on a trip to Europe, and refused to cancel it. She died in Frankfurt, and was buried in its Jewish cemetery. Her tombstone fittingly has verses from Eshet Chayil (“Woman of Valour”, from King Solomon’ Proverbs, chapter 31). Many more of Aguilar’s incredible works were published after her death, including collections of Jewish stories, novels for women, proto-Zionist writings, and works on Sephardic Jewish and English Jewish history. Her novel Home Influence, which had its first print just as Aguilar was dying, went on to sell out thirty editions. Her works were used as textbooks in some of the first American Hebrew schools. Although she was only 31 years old when she died, Aguilar is credited with being one of the most important Jewish educators and writers of her time, and playing a tremendous role in preventing Jews from assimilating and converting. Today, there is a public library named after her in New York City. Aguilar Point in British Columbia is named after her brother, who was an officer in the British Royal Navy. At her death, she was called “the moral governess of the Hebrew family”.

Words of the Week

There are rabbis who are so great that they can revive the dead. But reviving the dead is God’s business. A rabbi needs to be able to revive the living.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzkthe Kotzker Rebbe

Jews of the Week: Renée and Sir Naim Dangoor

The “Exilarch” and the First “Miss Iraq”

Sir Naim Dangoor in 2015

Naim Eliahou Dangoor (1914-2015) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and religious family, at a time when a full third of the city’s population was Jewish. His grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, while his father operated the largest Arabic printing press in the world. At 17, Dangoor journeyed to England to study engineering at the University of London. Upon his return to Iraq, he hoped to work as a railway engineer but was barred from the position because he was Jewish. Instead, Dangoor was conscripted into the army. There, he met Ahmed Safwat, and the two decided to start a business together. The first major contract secured by their company (Eastern Industries Ltd.) was to replace the windows of Iraq’s government buildings. They soon diverged into property development and manufacturing. They made matches, furniture, and opened Iraq’s very first Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Renée Dangoor

Meanwhile, Naim married his cousin, Renée Dangoor(1925-2008). She was born in Shanghai, where her family temporarily lived for business. The family moved back to Baghdad when she was still a child. In 1947, she participated in the country’s first beauty pageant, and was crowned the first ever “Miss Iraq”. She married Naim the following year. Unfortunately, things got really bad for Iraq’s Jews after the founding of the State of Israel. By 1959, the Dangoors had no choice but to flee. Naim continued to operate his businesses for a few more years until the government stripped him of his citizenship and took over his company. The family settled in England and started from scratch, opening a new property development business, and establishing a community centre for Iraqi Jewish immigrants. To preserve their culture, Naim founded The Scribe – Journal of Babylonian Jewry, which would go on to publish magazine issues for 35 years, distributed in 25 countries. By 1980, Dangoor had rebuilt his wealth. He wanted to give back to his new home, and established the Exilarch Foundation to provide charitable funds to organizations across the UK. Among other things, the Foundation has provided full scholarships to over 5000 needy students. The Dangoors made the largest ever private donation to both the Royal Society of Medicine and the Francis Crick Institute (Europe’s largest biomedical research facility). After Renée succumbed to cancer, Naim became one of the biggest contributors to Cancer Research UK. He also donated a massive sum to the University of Nanjing in China, in honour of his wife who was born nearby. Among the many other beneficiaries of the Dangoors is Bar-Ilan University, which now runs the Dangoor Centre for Personalised Medicine. Shortly before his passing, at age 100, Dangoor was knighted by the Queen, making him the second-oldest person ever to receive the honour.

50 Things a Jew Should Always Do

Words of the Week

The idea is that you’re supposed to be a light to the nations. If you only have your light on at home, nobody else sees it.
– Rabbi David Wolpe

Clockwise from left: Hakham Ezra Reuben Dangoor, Chief Rabbi of Baghdad from 1923-1926; Naim and Renée at a Baghdad party; an Arabic newspaper announces “Miss Iraq” in 1947; the first Coca-Cola ad in Iraq, circa 1950; Naim with his business partner Ahmed Safwat.