As the small caravan approached the ancient walls, Judith shivered. The months-long journey flashed through her mind: camels, ships, horse-drawn carriages, long treks on foot, all to reach the gates of Jerusalem.
For her arduous ten-month round trip, she got only four days in the Holy City. But those four days would change her life – and the future of the Jewish people.
A religious life in secular London
Born in London in 1784 to Parliament member Levi Barent Cohen and his wife Lydia, Judith grew up in a home that combined upper-crust British life with committed Judaism. She studied languages, art, music, literature, and, of course, Torah. Judith’s sparkling intelligence helped to draw the disparate strands of her two worlds into one tapestry, as an anecdote from her diaries reveals:
A group of British lords entered the grand Barent Cohen estate in London, Admiral Sir Sidney Smith in the lead. Crossing an inner room, they came across an unexpected scene: in defiance of protocol and norms, the young Barent Cohen daughters were all seated on the floor. The girls made their greetings to their father’s colleagues, but remained seated on the floor.
Smith’s eyebrows rose. “May I ask the reason the young ladies are seated so low?”
“This is the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem, sir, which is kept by conforming Jews as a day of mourning and humiliation,” Judith replied, explaining the solemn holiday of Tisha B’Av. “The valor exhibited by our ancestors on this sad occasion is no doubt well known to you, and I feel sure that you will understand our grief that it was unavailing to save the Holy City and the Temple.”
Admiral Smith’s eyes widened. “I understand perfectly.” He bowed his head. “The memory of the struggle of the Jews of Palestine will forever remain a glorious monument.”
For young Judith, this encounter solidified her dedication to straddling genteel British society and passionate Judaism.
Marrying a Montefiore
She continued bridging worlds as she entered adulthood. Her engagement at age 28 to Moses Montefiore sparked a fire of discussion within the Jewish community.
“Did you hear? Judith Barent Cohen is betrothed to Moses Montefiore! The Italian Montefiores, from Livorno.”
“But isn’t he Sefardi?”
“The Portuguese Synagogue won’t approve a marriage between Sefardi and Ashkenazi families!”
“Apparently, the couple feels that these divisions are harmful to the Jewish nation. I heard they plan to gift money to every couple that marries in their synagogue — and double to a mixed Sefardi-Ashkenazi couple.”
Moses Montefiore, who’d already built, lost, and rebuilt a fortune by the time he married Judith, would go on to many more accomplishments over the course of his long life: knighthood, baronetcy, Fellowship of the Royal Society, the office of Sheriff of London, presidentship of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and more.
The young couple settled into a house next to Judith’s sister Hannah and her husband, Nathan Mayer Rothschild. They traveled widely, and with each trip, her world expanded. She documented every detail in her diaries. With an artist’s passion, she noted the beautiful scenery they passed. With extraordinary empathy, she documented the plight of her Jewish brethren. Deeply moved by the poverty, antisemitism, and distress she saw in the Jewish Quarters of towns they entered, she wrote about how she found herself unable to enjoy the comforts she and Moses could afford.
Despite her lifelong precarious health, she pushed herself to the limit to establish vital institutions: the Jewish Ladies’ Loan and Visiting Society, the Jewish orphanage in London, and educational programs for girls at the Jews’ Hospital. When Moses retired from business young, Judith took over the administration of his philanthropic projects. Moses and Judith never had children – yet Judith viewed the orphaned and disadvantaged children she helped as her own.
A pilgrimage that became a passion
Then came the Montefiores’ monumental first expedition to the Holy Land.
The sights, the history, and the dedication of the battered Jewish dwellers had a heady effect on the Montefiores.
Committed Jews beforehand, their faith became the emotional center of their lives. Both Moses and Judith became regular synagogue attendees. They also began to bring a shochet – a ritual slaughterer – with them on their travels to ensure that the food they ate on the road adhered to the strictest standards of kashrut.
Inspired and impressed by what they had seen on their trip, they immediately committed their financial and political assistance to the people of Israel. They supported fledgling farms and towns that would become the forefront of renewed Jewish settlement, and petitioned the Turkish rulers, who rigorously restricted Jewish expansion, for more rights.
That trip was the first of five that Judith would make to the Land of Israel – and the beginning of a lifelong passion. On subsequent expeditions, she and Moses restored the city of Safed after an earthquake, and built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jerusalem neighbourhood outside the protective walls of the Old City. At first, bands of marauders and wild animals discouraged Jerusalemites from moving in. It took a cholera epidemic within the Old City to bring the very first residents.
Eventually, Mishkenot Sha’ananim took off, and nearby, the Montefiores built the landmark windmill that carries their name. It was part of their program to help impoverished Jews become self-sufficient by grinding their own flour. Although the endeavor failed, it remains a striking relic of their campaign, which also included building a printing press, a textile factory, and providing monetary support for agricultural settlements.
Judith connected strongly with the image of Jewish motherhood, and found her visit to Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, extremely powerful. “I was deeply impressed with a feeling of awe and respect, standing as I did, in the sepulcher of a mother of Israel,” she wrote. Rachel’s long struggle with infertility and subsequent death in childbirth deeply moved the childless Judith.
On their next visit, following an earthquake, they found the tomb in ruins. Judith immediately began organizing and financing its renovation. She and her husband built the iconic structure long associated with Kever Rachel. Nevertheless, the Ottoman rulers denied all Jews entry, so the Montefiores prayed standing outside the building they had built.
Pursuing peace and justice around the world
The Montefiores’ adventures extended beyond the Holy Land, and they traveled on diplomatic and philanthropic missions far and wide.
After a Christian monk and his servant disappeared in Damascus, the rabidly antisemitic pasha accused the Jewish community of murdering them to use their blood for matzot. Tortured horribly, some prominent Jews “confessed” to their supposed crimes. Others died. The pasha kidnapped sixty-three schoolchildren and held them in near-starvation in an attempt to pressure their parents into confession, while the Christian and Muslim residents of Damascus inflicted senseless violence on Jews and ransacked a synagogue.
Judith, with her impressive linguistic abilities — besides English, she spoke French, German, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic — facilitated Moses’ almost month-long negotiations with Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian pasha who ruled Syria at the time. Eventually, Muhammad Ali agreed to release whichever prisoners were still alive, though he would not agree to officially withdraw the charges. The Montefiores did not rest until they obtained an official denunciation of the blood libel from Damascus’ next ruler, Sultan Abdulmecid I.
They also journeyed to Saint Petersburg, where they petitioned Czar Nicholas I to rescind his decree that drove Jews out of the western regions of Russia. The wife and daughter of the Russian governor paid a formal visit to Judith, expressing their admiration for the way she inspired women everywhere as she sought to ease suffering around the world.
Despite their high status and Moses’ personal friendship with Queen Victoria, the Montefiores weren’t spared the antisemitism of the times. A Russian-Jewish visitor remembered observing a state banquet where other guests repeated the old tropes about Jews and money and jealously wondered aloud how much Judith’s earrings had cost. A popular story tells that an antisemitic diplomat once remarked to Moses that he had just returned from Japan, which he noted had “neither Jews nor pigs.” Moses responded coolly: “If so, the two of us should make haste there, to provide them with a sample of each.”
Besides her public service, Lady Judith undertook another ambitious project: anonymously authoring the first English-language kosher cookbook, The Jewish Manual: or Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery; with a Collection of Valuable Recipes and Hints Relating to the Toilette. Her beautifully written, detailed memoirs also became famous when they were published posthumously.
As Judith’s health declined, she and Moses spent much of their time traveling to various locales renowned for healing. Despite their efforts, she eventually became confined to their estate in Ramsgate, Kent. There, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah in 1862, she and her devoted husband exchanged blessings. The next morning, she failed to wake up.
The grieving Moses built a mausoleum resembling Rachel’s Tomb, which had so touched her, over her grave in Ramsgate. Judith could have lived out her life in sheltered leisure and comfort. Yet, when she witnessed the suffering of her people, she chose instead to become a mother to countless children and a sister to an entire nation – and was mourned by Jews around the world.
Her legacy, though, lives on.