We still deal strangely with the Jews. While at one end of Europe an Israelite scarcely dares show himself in the streets for fear of being stoned and abused, in other countries of the same continent we see them prime ministers, popular authors, favorite composers of music, capitalists, philanthropists, to whom whole nations pay homage.
Sir Moses Montefiore, though an English baronet, is an Israelite of the Israelites, connected by marriage and business with the Rothschilds, and a sharer in their wonderful accumulations of money. His hundredth birthday was celebrated in 1883 at his country-house on the English coast, and celebrated in such a way as to make the festival one of the most interesting events of the year. The English papers tell us that nearly a hundred telegrams of congratulation and benediction reached the aged man in the course of the day, from America, Africa, Asia, and all-parts of Europe, from Christians, Jews, Mahomedans, and men of the world. The telegraph offices, we are told, were clogged during the morning with these messages, some of which were of great length, in foreign languages and in strange alphabets, such as the Arabic and Hebrew. Friends in England sent him addresses in the English manner, several of which were beautifully written upon parchment and superbly mounted. The railroad passing near his house conveyed to him by every train during the day presents of rare fruit and beautiful flowers. The Jews in Spain and Portugal forwarded presents of the cakes prepared by orthodox Jews for the religious festival which occurred on his birthday. Indeed, there has seldom been in Europe such a widespread and cordial recognition of the birthday of any private citizen.
Doubtless, the remarkable longevity of Sir Moses had something to do with emphasizing the celebration. Great wealth, too, attracts the regard of mankind. But there are many rich old Jews in the world whose birthday excites no enthusiasm. The briefest review of the long life of Sir Moses Montefiore will sufficiently explain the almost universal recognition of the recent anniversary.
He was born as long ago as 1784, the second year of American independence, when William Pitt was prime minister of England. He was five years old when the Bastille was stormed, and thirty-one when the battle of Waterloo was fought. He was in middle life before England had become wise enough to make Jew and Christian equal before the law, and thus attract to her shores one of the most gifted and one of the most virtuous of races.
The father of Sir Moses lived and died in one of the narrow old streets near the centre of London called Philpot Lane, where he became the father of an old-fashioned family of seventeen children. This prolific parent was a man of no great wealth, and consequently his eldest son, Moses, left school at an early age, and was apprenticed to a London firm of provision dealers. He was a singularly handsome young man, of agreeable manners and most engaging disposition, circumstances which led to his entering the Stock Exchange. This was at a time when only twelve Jewish brokers were allowed to carry on business in London, and he was one of the twelve.
At the age of twenty-eight he had fully entered upon his career, a broker and a married man, his wife the daughter of Levy Cohen, a rich and highly cultivated Jewish merchant. His wife’s sister had married N. M. Rothschild, and one of his brothers married Rothschild’s sister. United thus by marriage to the great banker, he became also his partner in business, and this at a time when the gains of the Rothschilds were greatest and most rapid.
Most readers remember how the Rothschilds made their prodigious profits during the last years of Bonaparte’s reign. They had a pigeon express at Dover, by means of which they obtained the first correct news from the continent. During the „Hundred Days,” for example, such a panic prevailed in England that government bonds were greatly depressed. The first rumors from Waterloo were of defeat and disaster, which again reduced consols to a panic price. The Rothschilds, notified of the victory a few hours sooner than the government itself, bought largely of securities which, in twenty-four hours, almost doubled in value. Moses Montefiore, sharing in these transactions, found himself at forty-five a millionaire.
Instead of slaving away in business to the end of his life, adding million to million, with the risk of losing all at last, he took the wise resolution of retiring from business and devoting the rest of his life to works of philanthropy.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Moses Montefiore was sheriff of London. The queen had lived near his country-house, and had often as a little girl strolled about his park. She now enjoyed the satisfaction of conferring upon her neighbor the honor of knighthood, and a few years later she made him a baronet. Thus he became Sir Moses, which has an odd sound to us, but which in England seems natural enough.
During the last fifty years Sir Moses has been, as it were, a professional philanthropist. Every good cause has shared his bounty, but he has been most generous to poor members of his own race and religion. He has visited seven times the Holy Land, where the Jews have been for ages impoverished and degraded. He has directed his particular attention to improving the agriculture of Palestine, once so fertile and productive, and inducing the Jews to return to the cultivation of the soil. In that country he himself caused to be planted an immense garden, in which there are nine hundred fruit trees, made productive by irrigation. He has promoted the system of irrigation by building aqueducts, digging wells, and providing improved apparatus. He has also endowed hospitals and almshouses in that country.
In whatever part of the world, during the last fifty years, the Jews have been persecuted or distressed, he has put forth the most efficient exertions for their relief, often going himself to distant countries to convey the requisite assistance. When he was ninety-one years of age he went to Palestine upon an errand of benevolence. He has pleaded the cause of his persecuted brethren before the Emperor of Russia, and pleaded it with success. To all that part of the world known to us chiefly through the Jews he has been a constant and most munificent benefactor during the last half century, while never turning a deaf ear to the cry of want nearer home.
In October he completes his hundredth year. At present (January, 1884), he reads without spectacles, hears well, stands nearly erect, although six feet three in height, and has nothing of the somnolence of old age. He drives out every day, gets up at eleven, and goes to bed at nine. His diet is chiefly milk and old port wine, with occasionally a little soup or bread and butter. He still enjoys the delights of beneficence, which are among the keenest known to mortals, and pleases himself this year by giving checks of ninety-nine pounds to benevolent objects, a pound for each year that he has had the happiness of living.