Esther Abrahams (c. 1767-1846) was born in London, England to a poor Jewish family. As a struggling pregnant teenager, she was arrested for petty theft and sentenced to seven years in the new penal colony of Australia. Two months later, Esther and her baby were aboard the First Fleet: 11 ships of settlers, colonists, and prisoners headed for Australia. She arrived in Sydney in January of 1788, becoming the first Jewish person on the continent. During the voyage, she had met a British officer named George Johnston, and the two fell in love. They married and had seven children. In 1808, her husband led the Rum Rebellion in overthrowing the local British governor. Johnston became the new lieutenant-governor of the colony. While he was away for four years to defend himself against charges of mutiny, Esther ran his vast estate and business operations. Among her descendants are a number of notable Australian military and political leaders.
On the other side of the world, another Esther was the first Jew to set foot in Canada. Esther Brandeau (b. 1718) was born near Bayonne, France. To escape intense antisemitic persecution in France at the time, she dressed up as a Catholic man and got hired as a sailor for a voyage to the French colony of Quebec. Eventually, her true identity was discovered and she was arrested. Jews were forbidden from settling in Catholic Quebec at the time, and her desperate pleas for refuge were rejected. She was given an option to convert or be expelled. Brandeau chose the latter, and was shipped back to France. What happened to her afterwards is unknown. Her story has inspired at least three different novels and a play.
Words of the Week
Israel became the people conceived in slavery so that it would never cease to long for liberty… – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Yakov Henryk Spreiregen (1894-1982) was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw. The family immigrated to France when he was a young man—where he changed his name to Jacques—and then to England to escape the First World War. Spreiregen found a job working for a hatmaker, but was soon called up to serve in the military. After returning to England following his service, he started importing military-style berets from France. He then began making his own hats from high-quality angora wool. In 1938, Spreiregen leased an old thread factory in northwest England and founded Kangol (a name he made up from “knitting angora wool”). The company initially struggled to turn a profit, and many of the first employees were his own family members. Eventually, the hats did become popular, and earned a reputation for quality and durability. During World War II, Spreiregen won a contract to outfit the British army with berets. By the end of the war, he was making a million hats a year! Kangol later outfitted the English Olympic team, and the crew of British Airways. The company went public in 1952. Two years later, Spreiregen started a new division to produce helmets and seat belts. Kangol went on to become the largest seat belt manufacturer in Europe. In 1964, Kangol made a deal with The Beatles to make their branded hats. Soon, Kangol hats were popular among American hip hop artists, too, and have since been sported by the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Princess Diana. The most famous wearer of Kangol hats is undoubtedly Samuel L. Jackson, who has said that it’s a family tradition going back to his grandfather. Spreiregen retired from the company in 1972. Just a few years later, it would officially become the world’s largest hatmaker. Because Americans would often ask for the “kangaroo” hats when shopping, Kangol made their logo a kangaroo in 1983, a year after Spreiregen passed away.
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.