Many people fail to distinguish the achievements of Lady Judith Montefiore from those of her husband Sir Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), who was probably one of the most important Jews of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the life of this “First Lady of Anglo Jewry” is of significance both to Anglo-Jewish history and to the history of Jewish women. While embodying all the Victorian virtues of high moral purpose, sense of duty, charity and public–mindedness, she was a fierce loyalist to her faith and her people, devoted to Jewish causes and the welfare of Jews the world over.
She was born in 1784 to a prominent religiously observant Ashkenazi family. Her father, Levi A. Barnet Cohen (1740–1808), a wealthy Dutch businessman, had settled in London in the 1770s. She was given a strong education in languages, including French, German, Italian and Hebrew (later she learned Arabic) as well as an intensive background in literature, music and art.
In 1812 she married Moses Montefiore, a Sephardi of Italian origin, after her sister Hannah (1783–1850) married Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the head of the Rothschild family in England. The connection with the Rothschild family was strengthened when Moses Montefiore’s brother married a sister of Nathan Mayer. After considerable success on the London Stock Exchange and other business ventures, Montefiore was able to retire and devote himself to Jewish communal affairs. Judith became a full partner in all his communal affairs and public activities. She was a very active philanthropist, extremely involved as a patron of a host of charities and social work endeavors. She was a patron of the Jewish Ladies’ Loan and Visiting Society, an officer of the Jews’ Orphan Asylum and worked towards the education of young girls at the Jews’ Hospital.
Judith traveled extensively with her husband to save and protect endangered Jews around the world. She accompanied him to Damascus after the Blood Libel in 1840 and to Russia in 1846 to protest the expulsion of Jews from border areas of Russian Poland. She joined him on five of his seven trips to the Holy Land. Their first trip was really a pilgrimage: later trips were intended to help the Jewish community in Palestine, and the couple played a major role in the development of the country and its agricultural settlements, in the growth of Jerusalem and the fostering of Jewish independence and productivity in Palestine.
Both she and her husband kept extensive diaries. Of hers, only her honeymoon diaries and two travel journals have survived. The honeymoon diaries cover the first six months of her marriage in 1812 and then about two and a half weeks in 1825. Her affection and feelings for her husband are very apparent. All her writings have a serious piety and moral tone, as well as a very positive attitude to her religion. Two days after her wedding she wrote that “she did not know any circumstances more pleasing to me than to perceive that her dear Monte is religiously inclined.”
She kept a diary of their first visit to Palestine that took place between February 20 1827 and May 1828. The diary was printed for private circulation in 1836. While her diaries are similar to those of other nineteenth-century travelers to the Holy Land, her knowledge and sensitivity to the currents and flows of Jewish history give her writings a special quality. On visiting Rachel’s Tomb she related that her feelings of gratitude were increased by knowing that only six European women had visited Palestine during the course of the century and that she “was deeply impressed with a feeling of awe and respect, standing as I did, in the sepulcher of a mother in Israel.” In her diary of their second visit in 1838 she writes of her joy at attending the opening of a new synagogue in Safed built a year after the major earthquake that had killed more than two thousand Jews. She describes riding on horseback around the walls of Jerusalem and of visiting six different synagogues, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, in rapid succession. In one of them she was given the honor “of lighting four lamps in front of the altar and putting bells on the ‘Sefer”’ (Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah Scroll). She writes of women coming to her specifically for financial help, asking her “to become patroness of the charity and to allow my name to be placed at the head of the institution.”
Apart from her diaries there are no other extant publications under her name, but scholars consider that she was the author of the first Jewish cookbook in English, The Jewish Manual: or Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery; with a Collection of Valuable Recipes and Hints Relating to the Toilette, edited by a Lady, which was published in1846. The cookbook reflects her social position and is clearly directed at ladies who maintain households with servants. She adapts recipes to conform to Jewish dietary laws, replacing ingredients such as lard, so much used in English kitchens, and eliminating shellfish and forbidden meats. Her section on the toilette is “Victorian” in tone. She recommends simplicity in dress, considers delicate hands a mark of elegance and refinement, and carefully assesses the effect of diet on the complexion. The key to her admonitions is that “the face and body are indexes of the mind.”
Her husband always acknowledged her contribution to his public work. Prayers and poems written in honor of her husband always included her, and books printed all over the Jewish world were dedicated to her or to her memory, such as the popular book of devotions compiled in German by the poet Meir Letteris (1800?–1871), and later translated into other languages. When Judith died in 1862, Moses Montefiore established in her memory the Judith Lady Montefiore College, a rabbinical training college at Ramsgate, where they had lived. Until his death in 1885 he continued to credit her for the successes and achievements of his career.
Montefiore, Judith. Private
Journal of a Visit to Egypt and Palestine (written in 1827–1828 and
printed for private circulation in 1836).
The second section relating to Egypt and Palestine (pp. 128–234) have been reproduced by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Jerusalem: 1975.
from a Journal of a visit to Palestine by way of Italy and the Mediterranean.
London: 1844. Second edition London: 1885.
It was translated into Hebrew under the title Yehudit ( London, undated; probably 1879–1880).
The Jewish Manual: or, Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery, with a Collection of Valuable Recipes and Hints Relating to the Toilette, edited by a Lady. London: 1846. Reprint with an introduction by Chaim Raphael, Cold Spring, New York: 1983.
Breger, Jennifer. “Three Women of the Book: Judith Montefiore, Rachel Morpurgo and Flora Sassoon.” In AB Bookman’s Weekly 101 (March 30, 1998): 853–864.
Lipman, Sonia. “Judith Montefiore, First Lady of Anglo Jewry.” The Jewish Historical Society of England, Transactions 21 (1968): 287–303.
Loewe, Louis. Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore. London: 1890. Facsimile edition London: 1983.
Wolf, Lucien. “Lady Montefiore’s Honeymoon: An Unpublished Diary.” London: 1902. Reprinted in Essays in Jewish History, edited by Cecil Roth, 231–258. London: 1934.