Protestant Lord George Gordon, AKA Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu

Eccentric politician Lord George Gordon spent most of his peculiar life rallying against Catholics and exasperating the King of England, until he decided, after his first stint in prison, to convert to Judaism. Thus, protestant Lord George Gordon would come to be known as the holy Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu.

Lord George Gordon, The Birmingham Moses, printed by: William Dent, Published by: J Dickie, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

The “malicious, seditious and libelous Lord George Gordon” (in the words of Australian Rabbi Ronald Lubofski) may not have immediately caught the attention of the National Library of Israel. After all, what does a Protestant politician, who spent most of his life rallying against Catholics and being labelled as a madman and a nuisance to the King of England, have to do with us? The answer would probably have been nothing at all, had he not decided after his first stint in prison, to, of all things, convert to Judaism. Lord George Gordon would come to be known as Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu, and live his final years as a faithful(ish) Jew. This is his wild story.

Born in London to rich parents of Scottish nobility and a long line of dukes, George Gordon had every privilege available to a young boy, except for a sane family. His parents were first cousins, and both considered to be a screw short of a toolkit. Only a year after George was born in 1751, his father died, leaving him alone with his peculiar mother and a step-father not much older than himself!

But at least he didn’t spend too long in his bizarre childhood home. By age 11, he was enrolled in boarding school at Eton, but soon ditched the studies for a sailor’s life in the Royal Navy. It was here that he was first considered to be an eccentric, as he petitioned for something wholly unsavory to the upper class at that time: better rights and working conditions for working-class sailors. This penchant for human rights meant that Gordon was never promoted to anything beyond the rank of lieutenant, and he eventually decided to hand in his notice upon finding out that his regiment would be shipped (literally) off to America to fight for the British colony. A believer in American independence, another view which made him liable to claims of insanity, Gordon had no wish to fight against his beliefs, so he quit his maritime role.

The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 29 October 1993, ‘“Lord George Gordon (Israel ben Avraham ha-Ger)”, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

George Gordon thus found himself a rich and unemployed bachelor in London in the early 1770s, and like many other men of his stature, he turned to a career in politics. Rich white Protestants in those years were reaping the benefits of a system totally in their favor, but our 22-year-old protagonist set out to campaign predominantly for the black community, slaves, and better social conditions for the poor. The working class obviously adored him for this, but his fellow politicians thought him strange indeed. Regardless, feeling nostalgic for his Scottish past, he set out to run for MP (Member of Parliament) of Inverness-Shire, a working-class county in which he was most popular. Unsettled by the competition, the existing MP for Inverness-Shire put some hefty financial pressure on the Gordon family, promising that if George pulled out of the race for this seat, he would make sure that he won a seat in another borough instead. And that is how George Gordon became Lord George Gordon, MP of Ludgershall, South England (If you aren’t familiar with UK geography, this is about as far away from Scotland as you can get!)

But George Gordon was not particularly adept for the House of Parliament. He roused the support of his fellows by berating the opposition party with rousing speeches, but would just as eagerly rain down thunderous criticisms of his own party! He was fiercely opposed to the American War of Independence raging at the time, and spoke out against the King on more than one occasion (a crime for which the punishment would have been death if he was believed to have been sane). The good news was that for all of his theatrics, people didn’t take Lord George all too seriously, and he got away with his antics with nothing more than eye-rolls and head-shakes.

Elsewhere in England, by the 1770s, the once-persecuted Catholics had been regaining their freedoms after some years of anti-papal discrimination. As such, Parliament proposed repealing the law which banned Catholics from fighting in the British Army. Lord George, however, may not have been as crazy as we might think, for he saw through these supposed pro-Catholic sympathies and knew that this bill was just a rouse to enlist more soldiers to fight against the Americans. With this in mind, he started campaigning to entrench the law which stripped Catholics of their rights. These anti-Catholic campaigns, paired with his background as a member of a vehemently Protestant family, resulted in him being elected as the President of the Protestant Association in 1779.

Gordon while head of the Protestant Association, Adamsk commonswiki, via Wikimedia Commons

His following grew rapidly, and aroused the sympathy of Protestants around England and Scotland, and on June 2nd 1780, he led a demonstration, 60,000 strong, to protest Catholic emancipation. As Gordon entered the Houses of Parliament, the huge crowd rioted outside. Gordon ran in and out of Parliament, alternatively delivering stirring speeches about the misplaced loyalties and anti-nationalism of the Catholic Church, and reporting on the internal proceedings to the eagerly waiting crowd outside. With all this excitement, “The Gordon Riots” began in earnest, with shouts of “no popery” heard all over London. Catholic chapels were burnt, houses pillaged, and politicians beaten up. It was days until the army restored command with their shoot-to-kill orders, but by then close to 500 people had died in the riots and exactly a week later, when the ruckus had quietened somewhat, Lord Gordon was arrested for high treason against King and country.

Artist’s depiction of the Gordon Riots, from King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780, Christopher Hibbert, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, cover image by R. Bran

Author Lloyd Paul Stryker wrote that Gordon had acted “most wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously did ordain, prepare, and levy public war against our said lord, the King”, but Gordon hired the phenomenal lawyer Thomas Erskine as his defense, who argued that Gordon had not intended to insight treason and could thus plead not-guilty. The jury also considered Gordon fit for an insanity plea and thus found him innocent. But in the 9 months of waiting that had proceeded the trial, George Gordon had seemingly done some teshuva, and was now reconsidering his lifestyle.

Lord George Gordon, The Birmingham Moses, printed by: William Dent, Published by: J Dickie, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

There is no known reason that Lord George Gordon decided, in these 9 months of uncertainty, that Judaism was the path for him. But The Australian Israelite newspaper posits that the violent rifts within Christianity led him to seek a religion which was less divided, and that the “uniformity” and rigidity of Judaism may have been a safe-haven for him at a time of such uncertainty. We do know that Gordon exchanged some letters with other Jews during those months, seeking to learn more about the religion. He also started practicing Hebrew and petitioned the London Jewish community for political and financial support. Some actually say that his conversion was done purely out of greed. His main electorate had until now been the working class, and he possibly hoped to raise funds within the Jewish community to help secure a more affluent borough in the next elections.

Either way, by the end of his 9-month trial, he had written to Rabbi Tevele Schiff of Duke Street Synagogue, the Chief Rabbi of London, asking to be accepted as a Jew. He was declined. Rabbi Schiff was unclear about Gordon’s motives and turned the eccentric former MP away. But this didn’t deter Gordon. He instead traveled north to Birmingham, where another large Jewish community resided. After donating 100 pounds, a significant amount of money in those days, to the Singer’s Hill Synagogue, he was given the honor of reading a misheberach (benediction) in synagogue, and Birmingham’s Rabbi Jacob agreed to convert him. Gordon underwent Brit Millah, learned Torah, started praying daily, grew a beard, donned a kippah, and started keeping the laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Once an accepted member of the Jewish community, he returned to London where he attended synagogue services and again brought community acceptance with some generous financial contributions.

Tevele Schiff (Chief Rabbi of London), original oil painting in the possession of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi D Rabbi Yosef Herman Hertz, the Avraham Shwadron Portrait Collection, the National Library of Israel

He renamed himself Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu, dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing, and took off with his tefillin in tow, to Paris. In France, he spent his free time getting on Marie Antoinette’s nerves and making enemies with the French ambassador Jean-Ablthazar d’Adhemar, who sent out a warrant for his arrest. Instead of accepting defeat, Gordon fled to the Netherlands, but they didn’t particularly want him either and dispatched him back to England with a second warrant on his head. Returning to the UK, he pledged to keep a low profile, but in 1786 he was called to bear witness in a Christian legal trial which was taking place on Shabbat. Gordon plainly refused his civic duty to travel to the court on his sabbath and after so long spent dodging the law, he was finally sentenced to five years of incarceration in Newgate Prison.

The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), 22 August 1969, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Lord George Gordon remained religious, putting on his tallit every morning, and creating a minyan from the prison’s selection of Polish Jewish immigrants. He hired a Jewish maid to cook kosher prison food for him, ordered kosher meat, wine and Challah for Shabbat and often invited the other prisoners to feast with him. But Gordon was still far from being a nice Jewish boy. He was also hugely judgmental, saying that Jews who didn’t grow a beard were “shameful” and refusing to give charity to anyone who he didn’t consider pious enough. He wouldn’t interact with any Jew who didn’t keep the mitzvot to their fullest extent, and looked down upon those less religious than him.

The Australian Jewish Herald, 4 February 1937, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

But overall, this fanatically Jewish inmate fared well, and when five years were up, he was finally set to be freed. He was summoned to court for release, but this release depended on two conditions: a promise of future good behavior, and a bail fee. On January 28, 1793, Lord George Gordon was marched into court. In polite society in those days, hats were only to be worn outdoors, and to wear a hat inside a courtroom was an obnoxious insult. The issue was that Gordon was wearing his hat as a kippah, and refused to part with it for even a moment. When the guards eventually removed it by force, Gordon pulled a nightcap and handkerchief out of his pocket. He stuck the nightcap on his head and secured it under his chin with the hankie. For a man trying to prove his sanity, this was not a good look.

Then came the issue of the bail. Despite having more than enough wealth, he refused to pay. “To sue for pardon is a confession of guilt” read the court transcripts. His friends and family tried to step in and pay the bail on his behalf, but again Gordon refused, saying that he was innocent and would therefore not allow a penny to be given in his name. Gordon therefore found himself back in his Newgate cell. What Gordon didn’t know was that this decision would not just determine his freedom, but also his life.

This was because a horrid case of Typhus was sweeping through the prison, claiming many lives, and Gordon was not immune. By October he had caught the disease and on November 1,1793, Lord George Gordon, otherwise known as Yisrael Ben Avraham, died, allegedly while reciting the Adon Olam prayer. Gordon’s burial was left to his family, who ignored his newfound religious persuasions and chose a church ground as his final burial place.

The Westralian Judean, 1 March 1931, and The Australian Jewish Times, 19 February 1970, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Soon, the name Lord George Gordon was forgotten by most. If mentioned at all, it was almost invariably because of the Gordon Riots, or his anti-colonialist campaigning. His eulogy was simple, and reads as follows: “The leader of the no-popery riots, Lord George Gordon eventually became a Jew and died a madman – his sudden accession to greatness must have turned his head.” Rest in Peace Protestant Lord George Gordon, otherwise known as Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu.

The Wehrmacht’s Jewish Soldier

How did Walter Dirr, born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, come to be drafted into Hitler’s army? Clues from a family archive

The curious case of Walter Dirr begins with his father, Robert Heinrich Dirr (1880–1944), born into a Catholic family in Mühlhausen, Germany. Drafted at age seventeen, Dirr climbed the ranks to become an officer in 1904. By then, he was also apprenticing in construction. Robert became an architect in Metz, a city in Elsass-Lothringen, formerly part of the German Reich and now part of France. In 1907, Dirr fell in love with Frieda Rothschild (1889–1978, no relation to the famous banking family).

Their courageous romance didn’t last. Frieda (née Rothschild) and Robert Dirr early in their marriage

She was one of twelve children born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Jünkerath, Germany. Frieda’s family disapproved of the relationship. So when the couple asked permission to become engaged, her mother challenged them to test their love by refraining from all contact for a year. Should they still wish to marry after that, the Rothschilds would consent.

Throughout 1908, their year of separation, Robert kept a diary. Addressing every entry to Frieda, he filled more than 250 pages with thoughts such as “I can overcome everything with joy owing to my love and confidence in you.” At year’s end, he presented the leather-bound journal to Frieda. “You have to feel,” read the flyleaf dedication, “how in my whole being, with every drop of blood, with every beat of my heart, I have been living only for you. […] Only once can a man really and truly love, dedicating himself so fully to just one person.”

Frieda and Robert wed in either 1909 or 1910. Settling in Metz, they had three children: Mirjam Caroline (1913–2000), Argonna (1915–2003), and Walter Julius Hermann Stephan (1923–2012). Walter collected the family’s letters, diaries, photographs, and documents, later passing them on to a relative. In January 2021, the collection was deposited in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

The family archive at the time of its deposit. Photo: Franziska Ehmer


Separate But Safe

The few clues regarding the circumstances leading to Walter’s short-lived military career are located in several journals and letters written by Frieda Dirr between 1915 and 1945. Frieda and Robert’s initially happy marriage foundered in the economic crisis that began in 1923. Robert had to sell their new home, and ongoing financial struggles further strained their relationship. Frieda’s diary describes this difficult period, but in comparison with what was to come, it was positively idyllic.

The couple divorced after Hitler’s nomination as German chancellor in 1933, but Robert was still able to utilize his connections with the Catholic Church to move his family to nearby, independent Luxembourg.

Initially neutral after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Luxembourg fell victim to Nazi aggression in March 1940, when German troops crossed the border. Of the 35,000 Jews then in Luxembourg, most of them refugees from Germany, only a few hundred survived.

Here the intrigue begins. Robert registered his family as Catholics in Luxembourg, and though they never hid Frieda´s maiden name, the Dirrs joined the community of gentile German exiles. Letters indicate that acquaintances knew nothing of the family´s Jewish roots. In stark contrast to the fate suffered by Luxembourg’s Jews, the “cover” provided by Robert Dirr meant that his family could survive without going into hiding.

One piece of mail stands out among many sent to various family members during the war. Dated November 26, 1944, the letter is addressed to Walter, then twenty-one, by a German commandant in Luxembourg. Clearly oblivious to Walter’s background, the official hopes for a “good end” for their “mutual fatherland.” He sounds concerned for the Dirrs’ safety and surprised by their decision to stay in Luxembourg despite the Allies’ approach. The “anger of the people of Luxembourg” would, he feared, soon be directed toward the loyal Germans in their midst.


Home Front

So how was Walter Dirr drafted into the Wehrmacht, as the German army was known? There seems to have been an oversight. Dirr’s military papers list his religion as Catholic, although his mother’s typically Jewish maiden name appears here too.

Though the name Rothschild appears in Walter Dirr’s army papers, it seems to have been overlooked by clerks intent on drafting ever more Germans to fight in the east

Called up in 1943, Walter fought for Germany in the east. A leg wound after just two months in the field ensured that he spent the rest of the war recuperating in various field hospitals before returning to his mother and sisters. Although physically untouched by the conflict, Frieda Rothschild emerged from it a changed woman. Her nerves shattered by the strain of concealment and her fears for her son, she transformed from an open, confident socialite into a possessive, dependent matriarch. She told her children never to marry, and all complied; Argonna even lived with Frieda until the latter’s death. Robert Dirr’s undying love may not have withstood the Depression, but it did enable his ex-wife and children to survive the Holocaust more or less intact.

As far as we know – Walter, who discovered he was Jewish relatively late in life, continued living in Germany and apparently made contact over the years with some of his mother’s relatives who lived in Haifa, Israel.


The original version of this article was published in Segula – The Jewish History Magazine

The False Messiah: Shlomo Molcho’s Fascinating Life

When Portuguese crypto-Jew Diogo Pires met the daring adventurer David Reubeni, his life took an unexpected course. Converting to Judaism, Pires set off around the globe, learning Kabbalah, inspiring the greatest of Rabbis, attempting to create a Jewish army, and most famously, appointing himself as the Messiah.

"Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat", Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book "Le Messie", Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

In the Kingdom of Portugal lived a group of Christians. These Christians kept the laws of kashrut, shabbat, and niddah. These Christians prayed from Jewish prayer books and learned from the Torah. These Christians did not want to be Christians, and in fact many claim that they never really were part of that religion. You see, these Christians had been born as Jews, but during the Middle Ages they were faced with a choice: convert to Christianity, leave their home, or be killed. They decided to convert, but in their hearts they still knew that they were Jews, and this secret group of people, known as crypto-Jews, continued to practice and believe in Judaism.

At some point between September 1500 and August 1502 (if you are already thinking that this timeframe is a little liberal, I’m warning you that this may not be the article for you!) a little boy was born to crypto-Jew parents, uncircumcised and denied a Jewish identity. He was named a traditional Christian Portuguese name: Diogo Pires. And for all legal intents and purposes Diogo Pires grew up as a Christian boy. He went through the Portuguese education system, doing well academically, and at the age of 21 he was appointed by the Portuguese King to become the royal secretary in the High Court of Appeals of Portugal.

Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat, Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book Le Messie, Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

Diogo Pires would have made a name for himself in Portugal no matter what, and he was certainly on his way to doing just that, when fate decided that Pires’s life was about to change forever. He owed this upheaval to a man named David Reubeni.

Reubeni was born in 1490 in Khaybar in the Arabian Peninsula, but as with many aspects of Reubeni’s life, this fact is contested. Some claim that he was actually from India or Afghanistan, but considering that we have no proofs with which to confirm any of these myths, we will assume for our own purposes that the story Reubeni told of his own life is true. And according to Reubeni, he was an Arabian Prince and part of the lost Israelite tribe of Reuben (for which he was named). Reubeni had a brother, Joseph, who claimed that he was the King of the Jewish tribe of Reuben, and at least some of his community believed this to be true as he was granted authority to rule the ‘tribe’ with a group of 70 elders. The supposed Reubenite king and his elders kick off our story by sending young David on an important mission.

David Reubeni was an adventurer by trade and a political activist by choice. Shengold’s Jewish Encyclopedia describes him as “half mystic, half adventurer” as he spent his time learning Kabbalah and exploring Europe, carrying out daring missions on behalf of his brother. Arriving in Portugal in 1525, he began negotiating with the King of Portugal to seek an alliance and ask for weapons and money in order to create a Jewish army which would run the Ottoman Turks out of the Land of Israel and thus enable the Jews to regain control of the region. Reubeni needed resources and allies in order to fulfil this extravagant goal, and believed that Portugal, as a competing superpower to the Turks, would help.

An Illustration of David Reubeni on his horse

Considering that Israel is 75, not 500, years old, we know that this wasn’t a particularly successful mission, but it didn’t deter Reubeni. He stayed in Portugal for some time, secretly teaching Kabbalah to conversos and trying to garner support for his army. It was during one of these Kabbalah classes that Reubeni met Diogo Pires. Pires was completely taken by Reubeni and formed a belief that this remarkable man must be the Jewish Messiah. Pires claimed that he was given divine knowledge of this fact by G-d Himself, and would receive ‘visions’ informing him that Reubeni was the Messiah and would soon save the Jews, gather in the lost tribes of the Israelites, redeem the Land of Israel and rebuild the Jewish Temple. Yet again, considering the fact that no Messiah has thus far come to change the world, we know that this wasn’t the case, but to be fair Pires didn’t have that omniscience, despite his best efforts to persuade others that he did!

Diogo Pires believed that Reubeni had been brought into his world by divine providence, and that his entire life’s work was now laid out before him: to join Reubeni on his travels as a middle-aged groupie and preach on his behalf, convincing the world that Reubeni was the Messiah. Reubeni wasn’t very fond of this idea. For whatever reason, he decided that he would rather not have a super-fan attached to his heels, following him around adoringly on his brave adventures. Think: Donkey and Shrek. But unfortunately, Pires decided that no didn’t really mean no – it simply meant try harder. So Pires decided to circumcise himself and change his name, thus officially (well not really, but officially in his mind) converting to Judaism.

He took on the name Solomon Molcho, which has a deep symbolic meaning. Pires was determined to espouse and crown the next Jewish king, thus picking a name of one of the most famous historical Jewish kings (Solomon) and the name Molcho from the word Melech – king. However, this chosen name also has a deeper significance, seemingly overlooked by most literature on Molcho. King Solomon was actually not born with the name ‘Solomon’ (2 Samuel 12:25) – it was a name given to him upon his kingship due to the fact that he brought peace (shalom) to the Kingdom of Israel. When Pires adopted his goal of bringing the kingship back to Israel, and along with it, peace to the world, Solomon was thus an appropriate name to pick, like King Solomon did so many years earlier. Molcho is also evocative of the world Malach or angel, and as Pires believed that he was an emissary of G-d at this point, labelling himself as an angel seemed fitting.

But Reubeni wasn’t impressed. No matter what Pires, who we can now call Molcho, did, Reubeni was a lone-wolf through and through. However, now Molcho had a bigger issue: as we previously mentioned, being openly Jewish in Portugal was a death sentence, and he had just – very publicly – declared that he was Jewish. So, encouraged by Reubeni, Molcho fled from his home country. Additionally, in a turn of events that must have seemed truly unfair to Reubeni, his reluctant association with Molcho meant that he also had to flee Portugal.

From here, the story of Molcho gets a tad sticky. There are many different accounts of what may have come of him after he left Portugal, but we’ll do our best to use all the documents at our disposal to put an actual timeline on his subsequent travels.

All sources agree that Molcho spent time in Salonika soon after leaving Portugal, and we have good reason to believe that this was in fact his first destination after leaving his hometown. This is because Reubeni actually claimed later on, when being associated with Molcho had become a bit of a clout-booster, that he had sent him on an adventurous mission to the Ottoman Empire, which Salonika was a part of at the time. Reubeni doesn’t exactly say what this mission was, but it is more than possible that Molcho was indeed carrying out Reubeni’s will – he certainly had that influence over Molcho! Molcho also claimed in later writings that a divine power had come down to him and directed him to the region – maybe less of a likely story.

Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, Bavarian State Library, Munich, Germany, M. Steinschneider, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

Either way, it seems that he ended up in Salonika, where a community of dedicated Jews were practicing their religion. Molcho was drawn to these Kabbalists and studied with them intensely. He was skilled at deciphering Kabbalistic codes and understanding the nuances of the mystical teachings, and he was soon accepted into Joseph Taitazak’s Bet Midrash. Joseph Taitazak, also known as the Maharitats, was one of the most preeminent Kabbalists in the Jewish world. He was known across Europe and the Land of Israel for his mysterious teachings and customs. He was a leading Talmudic scholar and writer, and was convinced by Molcho’s claims to legitimacy. In fact, he financially supported Molcho throughout his stint in the Ottoman realms where Molcho was lovingly accepted by the Kabbalists.

The Deeds of Shlomo Molcho”, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, USA, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, the Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, Israel Ms. 235, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” Project

Molcho studied with the best of the best in the Jewish world, of course spending time in deep discussion with the Maharitats, but also learning with Rabbi Joseph Karo! Karo authored one of  the most important books in Judaism: the Shulchan Aruch, which remains the most comprehensive and widely-consulted book of Jewish law to this day. In fact, being the author of this book is such a big deal that Karo is often simply referred to as “the author” or even “our master.” So it is VERY cool that Molcho studied with him. It’s even cooler that some of Karo’s works actually mention Molcho and the deep respect that the esteemed Rabbi had for him. As a final name-drop, it’s also important to say that Molcho inspired Shlomo Alkabetz in his highly revered works. Alkabetz is the scholar who wrote the piyut (hymn) Lecha Dodi, as well as a wealth of vital books on Talmud, Kabbalah and more.

Joseph Karo (Bet Yosef), The Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Of course, all of this boosted Molcho to fame, and he soon had a growing group of students and followers who hung on his every word. He spoke and published works on Talmud, Tanach and Kabbalah, and preached his beliefs throughout the Ottoman Empire. One such belief was that the Messiah would be crowned in 1540, and many of his loyal followers believed him. They were wrong. But they didn’t know that yet, so they still revered Molcho and all that he had to say, and his students would often beg him to write down his sermons and publish his works, including his ideas of how the Jewish redemption would play out. In 1529 he finally agreed and published many of his sermons in a compilation which he titled “Derashot,” although it was actually renamed “Sefer ha-Mefoar” later on.

Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, the British Library, London, England, G. Margoliouth, Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, he Ben Zvi Institute Jerusalem Israel, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

After this, it seems that Molcho did a bit of traveling. Sources place him in Tzfat, Bavaria, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Constantinople, with loyal followers in each of these places and a wealth of his own published works now following him around. He documented his letters and dreams in Chayat Kaneh, his ideas of Kabbalah and the messianic days to come, as well as additional letters and even a song he composed in Kitvei Shlomo Molcho.

It is also worth mentioning that by this point Molcho had changed his tune, as was pretty inevitable, and he now believed, after a dream he claimed to have had in 1526, that he was the Messiah. Poor Reubeni had been replaced.

Despite it being a bit complicated to track his exact gap-year-esque travels around the globe, we do know that Molcho arrived in Italy in 1529 and by 1530 he was residing in Rome. Some strange things happened in Rome, but then again strange things seem to be the theme of Molcho’s life, so by now we can come to expect it.

Shlomo Molcho’s Kabbalistic graph, from Kitvei Shlomo Molcho: (The Collected Writings of Shlomo Molcho), edited by Zev Golan and Rinat HaBerman, the National Library of Israel collections

To start, while Molcho was preaching at the Great Synagogue of Rome to a large crowd of Jewish and Gentile followers and interested passers-by, Molcho predicted that there would be a flood in October of the same year. Sure enough, on October 8, 1530, a huge flood engulfed Rome! With his new-found meteorologist hobby, Molcho subsequently and accurately predicted an earthquake which he said would shake Portugal in January of 1531. As promised, on the 26th of January 1531, an earthquake was indeed felt throughout Portugal!

Pope Clement VII heard about these phenomenal feats and asked to meet with Molcho. Deciding that Molcho was the real deal, he granted him protection from the Inquisition and the rising tide of antisemitism that was sweeping across Europe. This was the nail in the coffin for Molcho who was now convinced without a shadow of a doubt that he must be the Messiah. In Sanhedrin 98a, it is written that the Messiah will endure a period of suffering in his lifetime. This came as a blow for Molcho as he had never really experienced suffering. What a shame! But it was no problem, he thought, because he could always inflict suffering on himself! So, Molcho donned the dress of a beggar, found a bridge over the river Tiber which was frequented by sick and poverty-stricken homeless people, and declared a 30-day stint of suffering, in which he refused to stand up, eat meat, drink wine, or be happy. Satisfied with this, he went home after 30 days, took a nice long bath (presumably) and got to work on his arts and crafts. He made a yellow flag bearing the word “MACCABI” – an abbreviation of the verse in Exodus 15:11 which says “Who among the mighty is like unto G-d”. This flag was with him until his (spoiler) eventual demise!

Shlomo Molcho’s handwritten signature, including his hand-drawn flag, Sefer Chayat Kaneh – Chazon Shlomo Molcho, the Gershom Scholem Collection, the National Library of Israel

Before long, Molcho heard news which made his heart sing: his old pal Reubeni was in Italy too, and wished to see him. The pair were reunited, but this time Reubeni saw what a following Molcho had garnered and took him a lot more seriously. This was a bad decision for Reubeni, as you’ll soon see.

By this time Molcho had hatched a plan to fulfil his messianic role and start saving the Jews, so with Reubeni in tow, the pair traveled to Regensburg in 1532, where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V held court. Molcho and Reubeni were granted a private audience with the Emperor and the three of them engaged in a private conversation which lasted more than 2 hours. It would be amazing to know exactly what was said during that conversation. Unfortunately, we do not. However, there are letters from the court, found decades later, which give us an idea as to what the men discussed. These letters posit that Molcho proposed a joint Jewish-Christian army which would fight against the Emperor’s enemies and conquer the Land of Israel for the Jews. Alternatively, Josselman of Rosheim, an advocate for German and Polish Jews in the imperial court, wrote in his memoirs that Molcho hadn’t been trying to conquer the Holy Land but rather spent the meeting encouraging the Emperor to mandate that the Jews must fight against the Turks and regain their religious freedoms. A third account which appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica states that what Molcho really wanted from the Emperor was money and arms so that the crypto-Jews could stand up for themselves and fight the Ottomans.

Whatever the contents of their discussion, it seems clear that Molcho was trying to form some sort of army to fight the Turks either (or maybe both) in the Land of Israel or closer to home. Molcho assumed that since the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans were two of the world’s competing super-powers, the Emperor might be interested in pairing up with Molcho and the Jews to fight against their mutual enemy.

He was wrong. Charles V hated his idea so much that he labelled Molcho and Reubeni as heretics and threats to the order of power. He sentenced Molcho to a trial in Mantua, and Reubeni to imprisonment in Spain. During Molcho’s trial, he was given a choice: revert to Christianity and continue living his life as a good Catholic, or die. Molcho rejected this offer, and chose the death of a martyr. He was burned at the stake. Reubeni also died not long afterwards in prison, and many believe that he was actually poisoned while incarcerated.

Shlomo Molcho, formerly Diogo Pires, lived a life as interesting, meaningful, and confusing as they get. He fought for his beliefs all the way to the end, refusing to give up on what he always said was his path. He may not have been a Messiah, but he did at least try to stand up for the Jews. He may not have been a prophet, but he did gain the respect of some of the leading Jewish figures of his time. He may not have been a scholar, but his books are still widely circulated and read. His life may have been an enigma, but we can still see him for the determined, ambitious man that he was, and know that he undoubtably left his own unique, albeit somewhat bizarre, mark on Jewish history.

Was the Giving Tree Simply Spineless?

Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree" sold millions of copies around the world, but it was also a target of harsh reviews. What is it about this minimalist book that evokes such conflicting feelings and what did its creator have to say about it? And perhaps we can all learn from success instead of arguing with it

Shel Silverstein (photo: Jerry Yulsman 1964) and the cover of the Hebrew edition of "The Giving Tree" (Adam Publishers, 1979)

When 34-year-old Shel Silverstein submitted the illustrated manuscript of The Giving Tree to publishers, it was rejected.

Silverstein was already a well-known writer with several books for adults, a children’s book and even a first album that he wrote and recorded (many more would follow) under his belt, and yet, his latest creative effort was rejected. The reason the publishers gave was that it was not clear whether the book was intended for children or adults and that it would be confusing to readers.

We know how this story ends: Silverstein persevered, the book was published, and the skeptics’ misgivings turned out to be his trump card – the book, bought by adults and children alike, flew off the shelves.

Since then, generations of children have grown up reading The Giving Tree, which was published in 1964 to resounding international success. The Hebrew edition came out in 1979. The book depicts the relationship between a child and an apple tree. The tree gives and the child takes. At first the tree only gives the boy its shade and fruit, but later, when the boy grows up and returns to the tree, it gives him its branches, then its trunk, until there is nothing left but a bare stump. And yet, “the tree was happy”, according to the book’s unforgettable ending.

There is no single explanation for the book’s enormous popularity. Perhaps it is Silverstein’s sharp and clear writing and minimalist, uncluttered illustrations. Or the book’s message about the universal values of generosity, giving, dedication and unconditional love. In the United States, many religious institutions incorporated the book into their curricula, using the story as a model for leading a good, unselfish life. In Israel, the book complemented the values of Zionism and Israeli culture itself – a culture highly influenced by the requirement of military service, which demands immense giving and absolute devotion.

The book has been translated into more than 30 languages, and in 2022, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in the book’s honor.

The stamp issued in 2022 by the US Postal Service in honor of The Giving Tree

However, alongside its enormous success, The Giving Tree was also the target of significant criticism from different directions. One of the main criticisms originated with feminist organizations. In the original English version of the book, the tree was referred to in the feminine tense: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy”. [emphasis YI]

Page from the 1964 edition of The Giving Tree, published by Harper & Row

Silverstein had chosen to imagine the tree in the feminine, which led to the book’s being interpreted as a mother’s absolute sacrifice or as women’s capitulation in the face of male selfishness.

In the Hebrew edition, the tree is referred to as male, but this change was in no way self-evident. Silverstein was very careful about controlling the copyrights and other publishing details of his books (which is why you won’t ever find any of his books in paperback). When the book was translated into Hebrew, a special request was made to refer to the tree in the masculine, due to the fact that nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and a tree is masculine. The request was approved, which is perhaps why criticism of the Hebrew edition was more generalized.

A selection of Silverstein’s books in Hebrew translation, available in at the National Library of Israel. All of them, without exception are in hardcover editions only

Criticism also came from environmentalists who claimed that the book encourages destruction and wanton disregard for the environment. Others voiced concern that it will promote a child’s selfishness if they identify with the child, or self-destructive behavior if they identify with the tree. Author Rivka Galchen wrote in the New York Times: “The boy and the tree are both ‘flawed’, and in the most old-fashioned way, their flaws, which are also their characters, determine their fates”.

Over the last decade, perhaps with the rise of political correctness or the development of more conscious parenting styles, criticism of the book has intensified and given rise to several parodies and alternate versions. Daniel Goldstein created a Hebrew parody called The Polish Tree and American writer Topher Payne came up with another alternate take: The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. Both seem to respond to the anger the book provokes when re-reading it as adults or as young parents, and seeing things in it that we did not see when we read it as children.

Cover of The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. An alternate ending to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, by Topher Payne, part of the “Topher Fixed It” series which provides “parody alternate endings to beloved but problematic children’s literature”

Along with suggestions for discussing the book after reading it to children and asking what they feel and think about it, perhaps it is also worth asking whether we can simply ignore the matter of its political correctness or the messages it conveys. Can it simply be enjoyed as a story? Each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Chicago, Silverstein was a prolific writer, but gave very few interviews throughout his life. He never tried to justify himself or respond to the criticism about his best-known book, The Giving Tree. He let his success speak for itself. In a rare interview from 1975, he summarizes his thoughts about reviews in general: “I think if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received. I never read reviews, because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don’t care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too”. Speaking to the New York Times in 1978, when asked about the meaning of The Giving Tree, Silverstein answered: “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”.