Tag Archives: Proto-Zionist

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: Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Rabbi Yehuda Alkali

The Unbelievable True Story of the Real Founders of Zionism

Yehuda Aryeh Leon Bibas (1789-1852) was born in Gibralter to a long line of Sephardi rabbis. After his father’s untimely death, the young Bibas moved to Livorno to be raised by his grandfather. There, he studied both at the yeshiva and the university, becoming a rabbi and physician. He returned to Gibralter to head its yeshiva, attracting many students from across Europe and North Africa. In 1831, he was appointed chief rabbi of Corfu (a Greek island that had a large population in those days). Over the next decade, he understood the terrible predicament that Jews were in, and resolved that restoring an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was the only solution. In 1839, he embarked on an international tour to encourage Jews all over the world to make aliyah. Some credit him with being the first prominent figure to do so in modern times. He was supported by the great Moses Montefiore, a wealthy Sephardic Jew who financed the first printing press and textile factory in the land of Israel, refurbished many of its Jewish holy sites, and established several Jewish agricultural colonies.

Rabbi Alkali

It was during Rabbi Bibas’ global tour that he met Rabbi Yehuda Alkali (1798-1878). Rabbi Alkali was born in Sarajevo and studied in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the holy city’s greatest Kabbalists. He went on to become the chief rabbi of Semlin, Serbia. Partly inspired by Serbia’s own nationalist movement, and further spurred by an 1840 blood libel against the Jews of Damascus, Rabbi Alkali was convinced that Jews must have a state of their own after meeting Rabbi Bibas. Rabbi Alkali established the Society of the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael and began a campaign to encourage Jews to settle in their ancestral home. Based on a famous prophecy in the Zohar, Rabbi Alkali proclaimed that the year 1840 would be the start of the process of Redemption, and that it would take one hundred years to accomplish. In an incredible prediction, he said that if Jews failed to take advantage of this spiritually-auspicious century, then by 1940 the Redemption would begin anyway, but in a much more difficult way, and only through “an outpouring of wrath will our dispersed be gathered”. History has eerily confirmed his prophecy. More amazing still, Rabbi Alkali published a book in 1857 titled Goral L’Adonai (“Lot for the Lord”) which clearly outlined the steps to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. He presented one of the first copies of the book to his dear friend, and a member of his Semlin synagogue, named Simon Loeb Herzl. This happened to be the grandfather of Theodor Herzl, who would inherit the book. Scholars agree that Rabbi Alkali and his 1857 treatise played a major role in influencing Theodor Herzl, and thus the whole Zionist movement. In fact, it was Rabbi Alkali who first proposed restoring Hebrew as the primary spoken language of the Jews, who argued that the Holy Land should be legally purchased piece by piece, and that Jews must re-learn to become agriculturalists for the whole endeavour to work. (All three of these things would soon materialize.) Both Rabbi Bibas and Rabbi Alkali practiced what they preached and made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Bibas first joined his disciples in Yaffo, then moved to Hebron and opened a library. He passed away shortly after, and is buried in Hebron’s Jewish Cemetery. Rabbi Alkali, meanwhile, founded a settlement near Jerusalem and lived there for the remainder of his life. He is buried in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives Cemetery.

Did You Know These Famous People are Sephardic Jews?

Words of the Week

It was a city of wonders. Everything was written in Hebrew. People were speaking Hebrew. I thought, This is redemption. This is the city of the Messiah.
– Amnon Shamosh, Syrian-Israeli novelist, on first arriving to Tel-Aviv in 1937