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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.