Who Was the Real Merchant of Venice?

Find out all about the real man behind the fictional Shylock!

The England of William Shakespeare was the England of religious turmoil and strife between Protestants and Catholics. It was an era of breaking old ties and creating new political and religious alliances, not to mention an era of intrigue and espionage. This was the world of Queen Elizabeth I. It was also the world of Roderigo Lopez, her physician-in-chief. Many believe he is the man who was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.”


Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician


During the deterioration of political and diplomatic relations between England and Spain, a shadow war begun between the kingdoms with the Pope, and thus Rome, in alliance with Spain. The spies employed by Spain and England worked to thwart each other’s plans, trying to keep the kingdom they were loyal to on the upper hand. Over the years of this quiet war it was Roderigo Lopez, well known in court as Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician, who positioned himself as a key player in these espionage wars.


Queen Elizabeth the First of the House of Tudor


Roderigo Lopez was one of the most famous members of the converted Jewish community (the conversos of Iberian Peninsula, Jews who converted to Christianity during and after the expulsion of 1492) in Elizabethan England. The fact that Lopez was Portuguese, was fluent in many languages, as well as being a physician, served him well in court. In 1588 Lopez was serving two masters: William Cecil – Queen Elizabeth’s close adviser, and young Earl of Essex, who would become a favorite of the Queen. These two masters had opposing agendas when it came to relations with Spain. Cecil wanted peace, or at the very least a ceasefire or truce, whereas Essex pushed for hostility and war.

Lopez had been employed by Cecil to secretly correspond with Spain. Once he convinced Spain of his loyalty, he was asked to poison Queen Elizabeth for a considerable sum of money. To this day it is contested whether Lopez fooled the Spanish or whether he would have gone through with the plan that would have promised him wealth.

In 1594 a secret correspondence between the Spanish and Lopez had been intercepted by the English spy ring. Essex, who had not been aware of the espionage war until then, turned against Lopez and was quick to scapegoat him as the quintessential traitorous Jew.


Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a key figure in the fall of Lopez


After being interrogated, tortured, and tried, Lopez was convicted of treason against Queen Elizabeth and the English kingdom. The Queen’s personal physician was accused not only of planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, but he was also accused of attempting to change the religious, cultural, and legal order of the kingdom. The Queen had difficulty accepting Essex’s pleas against Lopez, and while she did not directly interfere with the trial, she postponed the verdict by a few months.



An etching depicting Lopez speaking to an emissary of Spain


When the verdict was carried out, it was without the Queen’s knowledge. After walking the humiliating “walk of shame”, part and parcel of every convicted traitor, Lopez was publicly executed. Hung, drawn and quartered, his dismembered body was later cremated.

For over 100 years (since Sidney Lee’s essay from 1888) researchers have recognized Roderigo Lopez as the historical figure who inspired Shakespeare’s Shylock. It’s possible we will never know whether Lopez has been innocent or not, with regards to Shylock, we thank the Bard for telling us that story.

The Wondrous Journey of Selma Lagerlöf and her Lover in Jerusalem

Author Selma Lagerlöf and her Jewish lover, the writer Sophie Elkan set off for Jerusalem. That trip would be the basis of her book that eventually led to her being awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Sophie Elkan (right) and Selma Lagerlöf

“The month of August in Palestine was terribly hot. Every day the sun hung high above the heads of the people. Not a cloud could be seen in the sky and not a drop of rain had fallen since April. While it was not any worse than any other year, nevertheless it was nearly unbearable. It was impossible to know how to deal with the heat, other than to run away in order to escape it.”

(From part two of Jerusalem by Selma Lagerlöf)

Selma and Sophie

More than a century ago the Swedish authors Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan visited Jerusalem. Lagerlöf was then in her forties and Elkan just a few years older. Their visit was part of an extended tour through the Middle East during which they traveled across Egypt, but Jerusalem was indeed the highlight of their journey. They remained in the city for a long time and Lagerlöf drew upon her memories of her stay there for her novel Jerusalem, which she wrote upon her return to Sweden. This was one of the books for which Selma Lagerlöf was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy in 1909.

Lagerlöf was born on the large family estate called Marbacka in the southwest of Sweden. At the age of three she came down with polio which affected her legs, and as a result she developed a limp. Thereafter, she remained at home with her grandmother and was educated by private tutors. The fairy tales she heard from her grandmother and from farmhands working on the estate along with the Nordic myths she heard and read were her main source of inspiration for her writing. In the speech she gave at the Nobel Prize ceremony she thanked them all, saying she owed them a great debt.

When Lagerlöf turned twenty her father died leaving the family impoverished and forced to sell the estate. Selma moved to Stockholm where she trained to be a teacher. She then taught for ten years and from time to time would publish her poetry in magazines. After winning a prize in a literary competition she decided to dedicate herself to writing full time. She became successful and her life was filled with writing and social engagements, but she was lonely.


Photo of Selma Lagerlöf with her signature, a “Thank-you” card sent in response to wishes received for her seventieth birthday.


Sophie Elkan (nee Solomon) was a Swedish-Jewish author and translator. She was born into a wealthy and intellectual family and had an energetic and spirited character. She married at a young age and gave birth to a daughter. On Christmas in 1879 her husband died tragically of an illness. The next day her daughter was also dead. A few days later her father died. It took her a long time to rebuild her life. Her pursuit of translation and writing helped her during her recovery.


Swedish-Jewish Author, Sohpie Elkan Picture taken from the Schwadron Portrait Collection


When Lagerlöf and Elkan met in 1894 they immediately developed a deep bond of friendship and love. The two women were brilliant, successful, curious, talented and independent. Elkan enjoyed traveling from a young age and had already traveled extensively through Europe. In 1895 the two set out for Italy. They were free and in love and wanted to travel the world and to write. After some time in Europe they set out for an adventure in the Middle East. This led to their extended visit in Palestine and Jerusalem at the turn of the twentieth century.


During their visit to Jerusalem, Selma Lagerlöf became curious about the unique life of the Swedish community that had joined the American Colony in Jerusalem at the end of the nineteenth century.

The members of the colony were pioneers. They contributed to the development of the local agriculture, sowed wheat fields near the colony and grew potatoes, grapes and olives. They built chicken coops and a dairy barn and started a dairy industry. They established a weaving and embroidery factory and a bakery. They were also pioneers in the field of photography in the country.

They lived together in a kind of commune. Outsiders did not understand exactly how the community operated and they treated them with suspicion. Their communal lifestyle was considered immoral and instead of being seen as devout Christians, they were viewed as religious fanatics. For their own part, they were very friendly and succeeded in building good relations with the local population.

The more Lagerlöf got to know them the more she was impressed by them. That is why, despite all of the things she saw during her stay in Jerusalem, she chose them as the center of her novel. The story begins with the peaceful life of the farmers in Sweden and then goes on to tell about their lives once they reach Jerusalem. Like the Jewish pioneers, also Lagerlöf’s pioneers had to deal with the giant gap between the dream and the reality, between the sublime Jerusalem of gold and light and the real Jerusalem of dreary stone houses, poverty, beggars, thirst and disease. Her book was romantic and not entirely critical of their communal life. Perhaps because of her familiarity with them, she did not feel that she could tell the whole truth about them.

Jerusalem was a deeply influential book in its day. Scandinavian literature was very popular at the time and made its way into the Hebrew literature though intellectuals who read Scandinavian literature in Russian translation and then translated it into Hebrew. Jerusalem also had an impact on the Zionist movement, even though the novel described the realization of the dream of living in the Holy Land by Christians as seen through the eyes of a non-Jew. Because of the tremendous interest it held for Jews, Zionists and those who yearned for Jerusalem, the book was translated into Hebrew in 1922.

Lagerlöf dedicated the book to her beloved Sophie “my friend in life and literature.”



Illustration by Einar Nerman from the Swedish version of the book Jerusalem published in 1932

Are the British Descended from the Ten Lost Tribes?

The draft of an article by an important Romanian Zionist leader sheds light on an intriguing organization established in Great Britain in the early 20th century.

פסיפס של שנים-עשר השבטים, בית הכנסת עץ יוסף בגבעת מרדכי, ירושלים

An interesting discovery was recently made in the National Library’s archives. A draft of an article written by Adolf Stern, in which the prominent Zionist Romanian leader criticized a new organization – the British-Israel World Federation.


Adolf Stern (1848-1931)


And the first page of the draft of his article written in the later years of his life


Disputes, divisions and larger groups splitting into smaller groups are familiar phenomena in the Jewish world. However, in his article, Stern wanted to discuss a different grave threat which could be an impediment to many Jews. Despite its ostensibly innocent name, Stern warns at the beginning of his article that “This is a Christian organization from Great Britain and the United States, in other words, from the Anglo-Saxon world, which, by means of Biblical-historical, ethnographical, archeological and linguistic proofs, establishes the presumption that the British (English) are direct descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.”

Where did such a peculiar idea come from and how did Stern intend to fight it?


Kings of England as Heirs to King David

The belief among the Christian nations that the early European peoples and the British tribes are direct descendants of the ten lost tribes dates back to at least the 16th century. Its principles were used, among other things, as a basis for England’s departure from the Catholic church in the Vatican. The followers of the cult were called the British Israelites.


The symbol of the British Israelites


The book “Israel in Britain” by the English Colonel John Garnier who attempted to bring proofs of the “Israelitish origin” of the “British race”. Published in 1890.


But it was not only the Christians who took an interest in the lost tribes. In 1644, the Rabbi of Amsterdam, Menashe Ben Israel, son of Portuguese Jews in Holland, believed that the natives of South America are descendants of the lost tribes. Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel, who was full of Jewish messianic aspirations, reached these conclusions following his meeting with an apostate Jew from Spain named Aharon Levi (Antonio de Montezinos) who had returned from the rain forests in the Cordillera mountains in the Quito region of Ecuador, where he claimed to have met one of the lost tribes. Some four years later Rabbi Ben Israel published his book “Mikveh Yisrael” in which he presented Aharon Levi’s story as a foreword under the title “What Befell Aharon Levi the Spaniard”.


Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel


His work was translated into English in 1652, published under the name “The Hope of Israel” and eventually presented to the Parliament and State Council in England. Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel intended on the one hand to improve the standing of the Jews in England by indicating a shared origin, and on the other hand to hasten the process of redemption through the ingathering of the exiles. However, Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel’s intentions were taken out of context and the book appears to have given a new impetus and further justification to British imperialism under a different banner. Unification instead of conquest. If the British Isles had previously been the border which the ten tribes reached through conquest, from here on the population of the American continent will be a form of re-unification of the tribes who had dispersed over hundreds of years.


The first page of the foreword “What Befell Aharon Levi the Spaniard” which was published circa 1648. It should be noted that the author, Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel mentioned the Cordillera Mountains in the context of “Western India”, even though the new continent was referred to by the name “America” by Martin Waldseemüller, a geography professor, as early as 1507.


The last page of the foreword “What Befell Aharon Levi the Spaniard” and the first page of “Mikveh Yisrael”


As years passed, due to disputes and diverse genealogical ideas of the different groups of followers of the “British Israelites” cult, the need to institutionalize the idea arose. Therefore, in 1919 the British Israel World Federation was established, which continued the tradition that some of the European nations, and especially the British, are the true Israelites, based on God’s promise to Jacob “And God said to him, I am the Almighty God, be fruitful and multiply and a community of nations will stem from you and kings will descend from your loins” (Genesis, 35:11).

Before revealing the great falsehood at the crux of the Federation, Stern describes the principles of the Anglo-American collaboration: “The kings of England are the heirs of King David, and therefore, the British empire is destined to rule over the redeemed Jerusalem. The fifteen thousand Jews in the world are not the children of (the kingdom) of Israel, but Jews, descendants of (the kingdom) of Judah.”

The British Israel World Federation differentiates between the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. They claim that both those exiled from the Kingdom of Israel to Assyria and the majority of those exiled from the kingdom of Judah to Babylonia, did not return to their birthplace, but made their way to Europe separately, some hundred and thirty years apart. Only a small number of the exiles of the kingdom of Judah returned to their homeland from the Babylonian Exile, where they contributed to the building of the Second Temple. They are the forefathers of the Jewish people. In contrast, the tribes of Israel who are also known as Isaac’s Sons, wandered to Europe and became the Saxon tribes. Here is the linguistic entomological proof of such:

Issac’s Son > Sacs-son > Saxon

The Federation claims that the tribe of Benjamin separated from the tribe of Judah following the destruction of the Second Temple and reached the shores of the British Isles as Normans several hundred years after the Saxons. In this manner, with the unification of the tribe of Dan with the tribe of Isaac’s Sons (the Saxons), the united settlement (Britain) became the true People of Israel through whom the Biblical prophecy was fulfilled “Because I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply your descendants like the stars of the Heavens and the sand on the seashore and your descendants shall inherit the gates of their enemies” (Genesis 22:17).

In justification of the origin of the Kings of England, it is related that the daughter of Zedekia son of Josiah, her father’s legal heir, reached England where she managed to revive the royal house of the dynasty of King David. The nation these kings arose is in the British nation, who expanded over the years to a large confederation of nations who eventually declared the constitution of the empire in the royal conference of 1926. According to this constitution, any nation can unite with the empire while maintaining its independence.

In his article, Stern also discusses the Federation’s attitude to the Land of Israel and to the role of the British in Palestine. While the Balfour Declaration aspired to establish a national homeland and the writer of the Mandate even aimed for Jewish self-rule, the Federation saw itself as the exclusive heir to this territory. Neither the descendants of Ishmael – the Arabs, nor the Jews have any right to the land.

“The religious center of the (Children of) Israel is still in Jerusalem, which is not geographically located in Palestine, but in the British Isles…Zion remains the site of the throne of David and is still in the great city of King David, it is not currently in Palestine, but in the British Isles together with David’s tribe”, thus Stern quoted words written by William Pascoe Goard, the vice president of the Federation, in the National Message and Banner newspaper in October 1929.


In the photograph: William Pascoe Goard (1863-1937)


Stern quotes another article from the same newspaper in November 1929 on the identity of the Jews and the Arabs. Regarding the question of who is a Jew, the writer of the article, David Gilbert, explains: “First of all, all the British are not Jews… the eleven tribes did not return, as described by Ezra and Nehemia. The facial features of a Jew are not Israelite facial features, as the children of the tribe of Judah married idol worshippers, and their features are more Syrian than Israelite. Therefore, the British Children of Israel, descendants of Israel, do not have such facial features.” The same newspaper journalist asks the rhetorical question: “What are we, the British, looking for in Palestine?” and responds “More than we received a mandate from the League of Nations, we received it from a Higher Power! On December 11, 1917, Lord Allenby was stationed on Mount Zion and spoke before the military forces, which most likely included representatives of the Israelite tribes. One thousand two hundred years ago, three crosses were seen reflected in the sky, and the king stood in the center. In Jerusalem, the blue Crusader flag divided Jerusalem, the symbol of the largest empire the world has ever known. We have things to look for in Jerusalem.”

If so, Stern asks himself, what is the implication of the Federation for Zionism? Indeed, on the one hand it is an advantage, and on the other hand, a danger. The advantage is expressed by the liberation of Jerusalem from Turkish rule, and the danger is posed by the Federation’s desire to claim the authority of a mandate. However, Stern casts a doubt on the success of this religious utopia whereby Palestine belongs to the King of England and to the British Empire, and hoped for opposition to the mandate from the British parties. Many people have taken an interest in the Jewish people – Stern writes – from Oliver Cromwell to Lord Balfour. The Federation’s objective is not the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, but building Jewish identity and culture alongside the local residents without increasing the number of Jews in Israel, and thereby takes the Balfour Declaration out of its context.


Lord Balfour and the declaration with his signature

In Color: Amazing Photos of Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land From 1900

The then-revolutionary photochrom method gave the world its first color pictures — based on the imagination of the employee working the printing plates.

An Ashkenazi Jew in a rainbow-colored striped gown, center

The National Library’s photo collections include several albums of pictures produced at the end of the 19th century using the process known as photochrom. What was this method and why do the photos resemble oil paintings more than the black-and-white originals?

The first color photo was taken in 1880 by Thomas Sutton, a student of the mathematician and inventor James Clerk Maxwell. It was a picture of a scarf.

The Western Wall at the end of the 19th century. Men and women are seen leaning on the wall.
Rachel’s Tomb.

Even though the technique for making color photos was developed within decades of the invention of photography, it would take more than 100 years for color photography to relegate black and white to the art world. The mass shift towards color happened in the 1970s. Until then, color photography involved expensive techniques used almost exclusively by professional photographers. In its first few decades, it was considered unreliable.

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Twenty years after the creation of the first photographic image, a Swiss printer named Orell Fussli developed photochrom. Unlike color photography that captures the object’s original colors, the photochrom technique involved coloring black-and-white photos. Fussli’s innovation was to use lithography, a printing method that had been around for centuries.

Within a few years, photochrom became widespread. Its main advantage was its low cost and relative ease of producing multiple copies that could be sold.

In 1888 the company Fussli worked for opened a subsidiary called Photochrom Zurich. From its inception to the 1920s the company used its patent to dominate the global market for color photos. Zurich was the place to go to for anyone wishing to splash color in a photograph.

The entrance plaza at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem.
The Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock.
The Jordan River.

The Swiss company’s monopoly led to an interesting twist. In the absence of specific instructions, company employees had no way of reconstructing the original colors in a black-and-white photo. So they simply had to rely on their imagination.

This brings us to those two albums in the National Library in Jerusalem.

The first album, produced in 1900, is a collection of photos from a pilgrimage by a group of Austrians to the Holy Land. But it wasn’t the tourist-pilgrims who took the photos. At that time there were several professional photographers in Ottoman Palestine. The pictures were taken by the professionals, and the coloring was done by Photochrom Zurich.

The pilgrims, like other clients who were interested in photos from the Holy Land, selected their favorite pictures, apparently of places they had visited on their tour.

An Ashkenazi Jew in a rainbow-colored striped gown, center.
The Lions’ Gate, Jerusalem.
A woman from Bethlehem.
Muslim worshipers. The picture was apparently taken at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Therefore it is no surprise that most of the photos in the first album show key locations in Jerusalem and nearby areas. The only other location shown in the photographs is the coastal town of Jaffa. In that photo, Jaffa longshoremen are seen rowing the boat of renowned tour guide Rolla Floyd.

Tour guide Rolla Floyd shows tourists around the Jaffa harbor

In this album, the entrance plaza to the Al-Aqsa Mosque was adorned with wonderful colors, while Jaffa Gate, the Lions’ Gate and the Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock also recieved the photochrom treatment. It’s possible that the way these photos were colored reflects the conceptions the Swiss employees had of the land’s inhabitants. In all the photos they are shown wearing heavy garments with loud color combinations.

An Arab tailor.
The Dome of the Rock (from the second album).

We know very little about the history of the second album, which was produced earlier. We do know that on every cardboard page there is a stamp of ownership belonging to a Swiss evangelical school. It’s possible that the owners actually visited the Holy Land, but it is also possible that they simply purchased the album from another source.

The 36 photochrom prints in this album show landscapes in Ottoman Palestine and Syria. Several photos in the first album are found in the second one as well, and in some cases the photos show the same scenes at a slightly different moment.

In any case, this album illustrates several examples of the artistic freedom of the Swiss company’s employees. One example is a photo of an Ashkenazi Jew in a rainbow-colored striped gown – most likely not faithful to the original.

And this article cannot end without mentioning the beautiful photo of the Western Wall from the end of the 19th century. Men and women are seen leaning on the wall attired in a vivid array of black, white, red, green and brown.