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Address in Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Society

Cecil Roth

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Address Delivered by Dr. Cecil Roth at the Conversazione held at University College, Gower Street, W.C.I, on Monday, 24th June, 1963, in celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Society and the Installation at University College of The Library and Collection from Judith Lady Montefiore College, Ramsgate. MY qualification for representing the Jewish Historical Society before this dis? tinguished gathering, in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of its founda? tion, is that I have the melancholy honour of being the senior surviving ex president of our august body. When twenty years ago I delivered the principal address at the meeting held in the rooms of the Royal Society, to celebrate our Jubilee, I felt myself a mere stripling among the distinguished and venerable company. But now alas the years have caught me up, and I realize that I stand before you as something of an historic relic, and personal link with some of the quasi-legendary figures of our past. And I qualify for this honour all the more in view of the fact that I am rapidly acquiring all the proper attributes of decrepitude, such as a faltering memory, inability properly to correlate visages and names, and a growing tendency not to distinguish between what I have read and what I have experienced, such as affected his late Majesty King George IV when he used to recount his heroic exploits at the Battle of Waterloo. Hence, notwithstanding difficulties of chronology, I seem to have a vivid recollection of that memorable meeting held in the rooms of the Maccabaeans in St. James's Hall on 3rd June, 1893, when Lucien Wolf proposed that the Society should be constituted and this resolution was carried with prophetic acclamation. A super-elephantine period of gestation had preceded the birth, for the origins of our Society are to be sought in the great Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition held in the Albert Hall in 1887, which may be considered a landmark in Jewish historiography generally as well as in the investigation of Jewish ritual art and antiquities. The secretaries, organizers and vital spirits on that occasion were those remarkable twin-spirits, Joseph Jacobs and Lucien Wolf (whom I have just mentioned), who laid the foundations of Anglo-Jewish history, for the Medieval and Resettlement periods respectively, with such mastery that we have not yet rid ourselves of our dependence on them. There were giants in the land in those days, and fortunate are we who remember some at least of that noble band even in their days of (in some cases) cantankerous decline. But perhaps the greatest tribute to them is that they set our society on so sure a basis that, septuagenarian though we are, we seem to show no sign of diminished fertility. Nor does the mine on which we work even remotely approach exhaustion. We have the material even though we lack the resources for another seventy years of publication and research: and for the moment we need look no further forward. As I have just said, we owed our origin ultimately to the great Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, and we have always realized the significance of the exhibition aspects of our work. As soon as we acquired a permanent meeting-place (again, thanks in great measure to the Maccabaeans) a small museum was incorporated, and through the munifi? cence of the late Gustave Tuck this developed in due course into a truly important 255 R</page><page sequence="2">256 ADDRESS permanent exhibition of Anglo-Jewish historical material and ritual art. It is now open, and I imagine that all of you will have inspected it with the care that it deserves: in particular, I hope that you will have paid attention to the great iUurninated manuscript Haggadah from the Mocatta Library, one of the most important of all ?luminated Hebrew MSS. of the Middle Ages. At the Albert Hall Exhibition, an entire section was devoted to materials illustrating the life and activities of that greatest of English Jews, Sir Moses Montefiore, then but recendy dead. Later, our Society had a permanent exhibition of Montefioriana in delightful form: Sir Isidore Spielmarm, whose wife was a daughter of Sir Joseph Sebag Montefiore, bequeathed to us Sir Moses' Sedan Chair?one of the last in regular use in England?which served as a display-case for a selection of relics of the venerable Baronet. This alas was destroyed by enemy action with so many more of our treasures in the course of the last War. But this evening, we are combining with our septuagenary celebration also the incorporation in our Library and Museum of a collection of Monte? fioriana formerly housed in Ramsgate. You can see (or will have seen) portraits and medals depicting Montefiore, books and manuscripts acquired by Montefiore or by the Judith Lady Montefiore College, and testimonials presented to Montefiore in token of the adoration and gratitude of his coreligionists all over the world. From the point of view of our own studies, perhaps the most curious object is the board from the old Royal Exchange with the wording jews' walk near which Montefiore had to stand with the eleven other Jew Brokers at the beginning of his City career, and which he secured when the building was reconstructed in 1842. It is a worthy memorial to him: for no man did more to establish in the mind of the world a picture of the ideal Jew?let us perhaps add, of the ideal British Jew: all the more characteristically British because of his uncom? promising devotion to the call of the land of Israel and his confidence in the reconstitution there of an independent Jewish Commonwealth. "Palestine must belong to the Jews," he once wrote, "and Jerusalem is destined to be the seat of the Jewish Empire." "Begin the hallowed task at once, and He who takes delight in Zion will establish the work of your hands." Moses Montefiore is indeed?it is not the least of his glories?one of the fathers of the Jewish state that has been so amazingly renewed in our day. The exhibi? tion that you will see here tonight has captured something of the spirit of that indomitable centenarian, in whom modern European Jewry produced its finest flower. Sir Moses Montefiore lacked the benefits of a University education, for in his early days there was no University in this country which opened its doors to those who were not members of the Church of England. He followed therefore with intense interest the establishment in his beloved London in 1829 of University College, open to all of whatever creed: and he would have been gratified to think that in this noble building, and watched over by the physical presence of his contemporary Jeremy Bentham, there would be an exhibition of material relating to his career. But he would have been even more gratified I am sure to know of the intimate relations that have prevailed for so long between that institution and a society such as ours, and to realize that the Provost should have been present at the inauguration of this display. He would certainly have wished to associate himself with me when I thank you, Sir Ifor Evans, not only for coming to our birthday party, but even more for the cordial hospitality that has been extended to the Jewish Historical Society by University College for so very many years.</page></plain_text>