Tag Archives: Portugal

Jew of the Week: Menashe ben Israel

Manoel Dias Soeiro (1604-1657) was born in Madeira, an island off of Portugal, where his parents fled from the Portuguese Inquisition. They soon moved to the Netherlands, where Soeiro grew up and became a respected rabbi and author, known by his Hebrew name Menashe ben Israel. In Holland, he established the first Hebrew printing press at the young age of 22, and his writings (in five languages!) would gain great fame, not only in the Jewish community, but among the greatest scholars and philosophers of the age, including Vieira, de Groot, and Huet. A portrait of Soeiro was even painted by Rembrandt! A great kabbalist, Soeiro wrote and published one of the earliest Jewish treatises on reincarnation, called Nishmat Hayim. Among his students was the infamous Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. In 1638, Soeiro moved to Brazil. At the time, there was a popular notion that the natives were actually the Lost Tribes of Israel. This inspired Soeiro to take up the role of helping Jewish causes around the world. His first stop was England, where virtually no Jews lived since they were expelled in 1290. Soeiro worked hard to open the doors to their return, and in December 1655, the re-admittance of Jews to England was granted. Sadly, Menashe could not continue his work. Upon return to the Netherlands, his son passed away. Unable to contain the grief, Soeiro passed away himself in the midst of the funeral.

Words of the Week

As they set out from their place above, each soul is male and female as one. Only as they descend to this world do they part, each to its own side. And then it is the One Above who unites them again. This is His exclusive domain, for He alone knows which soul belongs to which and how they must reunite.
– Zohar (I, 85b)

Jew of the Week: Judah Touro

A Great American Hero

Judah Touro: War Hero, Philanthropist

The Touro family was forced out of Portugal in the explusion of 1497. They first settled in the Netherlands, then tried their fortunes in the New World, being among the earliest pioneers in America. There, they established the first official synagogue in the Americas, the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island. George Washington visited in 1790, there giving his famous speech “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Isaac Touro was the chazzan of this congregation. His son Judah Touro (1775-1854) established a small goods store in New Orleans which blossomed into a massive merchant empire. Throughout his life, Judah contributed vast sums of money for important causes, both Jewish and non-Jewish – schools, cemeteries, orphanages and hospitals, including the $20,000 necessary to build the Jews’ Hospital of New York, now known worldwide as Mount Sinai Hospital. In an early act of Zionism, Touro sent $50,000 to Jews living in Israel. In another instance, he provided the funds to establish a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, called Mishkenot Sha’ananim. At death, he left half a million dollars to charity, an unheard of amount in those days. Two-thirds of this money went to non-Jewish causes. The other third was given to nearly every active synagogue operating in America. For these reasons, some say Judah Touro is the greatest Jewish philanthropist of all time. Most impressively, Judah Touro also served his country in the War of 1812. After getting injured, he continued to volunteer as a munitions carrier. In the Battle of New Orleans, a 12-pound cannonball smashed his leg, ripping off most of his thigh. Left for dead, he managed to survive and continued his business for another 40 years. Humble and modest, he lived in a small apartment all his life. Judah Touro’s financial advice: never take a mortgage on an existing property to invest elsewhere.

Words of the Week

Better an Israel that everyone hates than an Auschwitz that everyone loves.
– Rabbi Meir Kahane

Jew of the Week: Benjamin Disraeli

Prime Minister of the U.K.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) A descendant of Sephardic Jews from Portugal – which came to Britain by way of Italy – Disraeli was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1874 until 1880. His Conversative Party made great strides for Britain, and it was said he did “more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.” Disraeli was a staunch imperialist, working hard to spread the borders of the British Empire. He purchased the Suez Canal, invaded Afghanistan, and made Queen Victoria the Empress of India. If that’s not impressive enough, he also wrote 18 novels and 8 non-fiction books. Despite being baptized by his father at a young age, Disraeli always identified as a Jew. On one occasion, while debating in Parliament, a fellow MP attacked him with an anti-Semitic remark, to which Disraeli replied: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Words of the Week

A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi