Search our Archives:
» Opinion & Society
Lord George Gordon
By Moshe Kahan
A pious Jew imprisoned in an English jail in the year 1788 maintained kashrut and prayed with a minyan. "So what?", you may ask, "trying circumstances have always been part and parcel of the exile, yet Jews have kept and always will keep the Torah no matter how difficult the moment appears!"
Yet the story of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon is especially worth recalling. True, he was but one of a number of Jews at that time in Newgate prison. Yet he was the only Jew who could claim, among other things, to have been a Member of Parliament, a son of the Duke of Gordon, and president of the Protestant Association. This is the story of the remarkable Lord George Gordon, ger tzedek, a righteous convert.
One day, most likely before the year 1780, George Gordon was on holiday in East Anglia. While walking down a street in the small Jewish neighborhood of Ipswich, he noted a strange sign above the door of Isaac Titterman, (the local mohel, shochet and chazzan - ) "All who are hungry enter and eat." Gordon's Calvinistic love for the Old Testament, his familiarity with Hebrew, and his sympathy with the Jewish people made the Haggada's invitation irresistible. Yielding to impulse, he entered; and thus began his lasting friendship with Isaac Titterman.
In the year 1787, at the age of 36, Lord George Gordon converted to Judaism. Considering that the Jewish people were being publicly ridiculed by his fellow countrymen, who had only shortly before grudgingly allowed Jews the right to live in England after almost 400 years of banishment, Gordon's conversion at this time was a marvel. A study of his background reveals many inherent characteristics that led to his conversion.
George Gordon was born on Upper Grosvenor Street in London on December 26, 1751, the sixth son of the Duke of Gordon. His godfather was none other than King George II. Soon after his birth, his father died, and young George was sent to the family estates in Scotland. His mother, the Duchess, soon remarried an American subaltern in the British Army 17 years her junior. She then had little time for her six children by the Duke, whom she shamelessly neglected. By the time George had entered Eton (England's famous prep school), his mother had bought him a commission in the army.
Thus, before he was eleven years old, George Gordon had already been promoted to lieutenant. His sensitivity to all forms of injustice was to lead him later in life to attack this very system of place-giving and the buying of office through family influence. Because his mother had overextended her influence at court to advance the army careers of her husband and George's elder brother William, it seemed more advantageous for George to serve in the Navy. She obtained an appointment for him as a midshipman and, within a year of his leaving Eton, he was at sea.
His behavior in the Navy set the tone for much of his future political life. He was outspoken, independent and generally a nuisance both to his captain and the Admiralty Board; but he was always popular with his shipmates. Above all, he was sensitive to all that smacked of hypocrisy and injustice. At eighteen, while traveling in the West Indies under Lord Sandwich, George Gordon was appalled by the sight of the Negro slaves of Jamaica, and made it his personal business to reprove no less than the governor of Jamaica. As a sailor he got his first glimpse of America and came to admire and respect it. Later, when England was at war with America, he strongly objected and called it "the mad, cruel, and accursed American war."
A few years later he decided to run for Parliament. His unique, original character, complemented by his outspokenness, sympathy, and charm resulted in a most unusual and successful political campaign for the votes of Inverness, Scotland. With enthusiasm and determination he learned the native tongue, Gaelic; he dressed and danced the part of a Highlander, as well as perfecting his playing of the bagpipes. When he was well on the way to victory, the incumbent, General Fraser, afraid for his seat, made an appeal to the Duke of Gordon, George Gordon's older brother, to buy George a seat elsewhere. This was done, and George Gordon took his seat (for Luggershall in Wiltshire) in the House of Commons in 1774 at the age of 23, just two years before the American Revolution.
At first Gordon was a rather taciturn Member of Parliament, but as the war with America raged on poorly for England, he spoke out often against England's involvement. His independent spirit, love of freedom, and hatred of injustice and hypocrisy began to echo in the halls of Parliament. Never did he belong to a party; in his own words he belonged to the "party of the people." A common remark in those days was that there were "three parties in Parliament - the Ministry, the Opposition, and George Gordon." All of this is all the more striking because in 1774 no other aristocrat was so outspokenly propounding the rights of the people. His actions in those days and in the dramatic events that followed seemed to unveil a soul in search of a home, a home George Gordon eventually found in the true justice of Torah.
The incredible events of one week in June 1780 and their subsequent repercussions may have had the most decisive impact on his conversion to Judaism. Few are aware that 197 years ago the city of London was at the mercy of a violent mob for seven days. The town was paralyzed, and its citizens terrorized in riots which may have cost as many as 850 lives. These riots were linked to George Gordon and are often called "The Gordon Riots."
England, in 1778, was in sad shape due to the disastrous American war. This period of confusion and discontent led many of England's unhappy Protestants to see Roman Catholicism as the bogeyman of all their ills. Associations for the defense of Protestantism against the advancing evils of "Popery" sprung up in England and Scotland, especially when the Catholic Relief Bill was passed to induce the draft of Catholics into the army under the sham promise of tolerance.
At the age of 29, George Gordon, already outspoken on behalf of the Scotch Presbyterians, was called upon to become President of the London Protestant Association. When he accepted office he wrote:
The coolness and temper in the proceedings of the Association will soon demonstrate to the Roman Catholics that we are far from being possessed of a persecuting disposition... The Roman Catholics must know as well as we do that "Popery" when encouraged by government has always been dangerous to the liberties of the people.
However, he perceived the hypocrisy in the Catholic Relief Bill and sought its repeal. He even had a private meeting with the King about the issue, but to no avail. A petition asking for the removal of the Relief Bill was then drawn up, and names were collected at Gordon's home. This petition was to be presented to the House of Commons in a massive but peaceful demonstration march set for June 2, 1780. Meanwhile the Government tried to bribe Gordon to leave the Association with large offers of money and political importance, but he could not be bought off.
The demonstration and presentation of this petition turned into a dangerous, destructive, and violent revolt against authority that was quelled only after 15,000 armed militia were called in. For his part as President of the Association, George Gordon was charged with high treason and sent to the Tower of London to await trial. He was imprisoned in June but did not come to trial until December.
This six-month imprisonment and contemplation of a likely death penalty must have been a time of self-appraisal, re-evaluation and prayer, for Gordon emerged from his trial and acquittal a far more religious man. His flashy plaid trousers were exchanged for somber black. He now almost always carried a Bible and memorized entire chapters. He began to study Quakerism and no doubt allied himself to their pacifism and desire to aid the poor.
Although the government had not succeeded in making him appear ultimately responsible for the riots that ensued from the demonstration, they did find at last, six years later, an excuse to have him removed from the political scene. These events coincided with his remarkable conversion to Judaism. Thus begins the final and most significant period of his life.
Lord George Gordon had had a taste of the English penal system first hand. He had not forgotten the long days and nights of his six months in the Tower of London. In 1786, aged 35, he published a pamphlet criticizing the notoriously cruel system of English punishment. The Government saw in this a chance to get Gordon on a charge of libeling the King's Court and Judges. And it seemed likely that they could also get him on an additional charge of libel against the Queen of France and her august ambassador in London.
This second charge, the "French libel," is significant in its display of the strength of Gordon's convictions. In 1782 he had visited the French Court and been appalled by the tremendous contrast between France's rich and poor. At this time he also befriended the Italian Count Cagliostro who had been banished from France under suspicion of involvement in a scandal concerning a diamond necklace which had involved the Queen of France herself.
Back in England, Gordon learned that France was attempting revenge on the Count. Gordon came to his aid by publishing a defense of the Count and an attack on the Queen and her ambassador. Spiced with Gordon's hatred for the abuses of the privileged class and with devotion to his friend, it was interpreted as a libel against the Queen of France and her ambassador. In 1786 Gordon was found guilty on two counts of libel. But before he could be carried off to prison, he escaped to Amsterdam, perhaps with the intention of converting to Judaism there.
Gordon had obviously been aware for some years already that Judaism had something to offer him. His experience in Ipswich of the generosity of the Jewish home, his long months of personal re-evaluation in the Tower of London, his knowledge of Hebrew, his love of the Bible, and his efforts on behalf of Jews the world over all led him on the path to conversion. In 1785, for instance, he wrote to the German Emperor, reproving him for his anti-Semitic laws and citing them as the cause for the German nation's troubles.
His biographer and close companion, John Watson, who wrote The Life of Lord George Gordon in 1795, stated that Gordon understood the hypocrisy of Christianity's break from the Old Testament while admiring the Jews who "literally adhered to the Laws of Moses." Gordon may even have kept kashrut several years before his conversion: at dinner with Count Cagliostro, Gordon ate only watercress with salt.
Why should Gordon have intended to convert in Amsterdam? Why had he not already done so in London? The answer may be that the Chief Rabbi of England, Rav David Tevele Schiff of the Duke's Place Synagogue, was hesitant to admit Gordon into the Jewish Nation because of the risk to the Jewish community. After all, Gordon had not only been a thorn in the side of the Government for years but he was also the brother of a most aristocratic and powerful nobleman, while the Jews in England in those days were barely tolerated.
Even if Gordon did go to Holland with conversion in mind, it did not come about there, as he was refused permission to stay there. According to the Public Advertiser of July 26, 1787, the French ambassador had influenced the Burgomaster of Amsterdam against Gordon. The Sheriff visited Lord Gordon in the home of Moses Opdenberg where he was staying and ordered him to leave the city. On July 22, 1787, he arrived at Harwich, England under Dutch guard. Rather than return to London, Gordon went to Birmingham and there became a ger. The story of this event is related by the historian Moses Margoliouth (a convert out of Judaism) in a literal translation of a Hebrew letter by a Jew named Myer Joseph.
The rite of the Covenant of Abraham was administered to him in the town of Birmingham. The name of the individual who performed the operation was Rabbi Jacob of Birmingham. When Lord George Gordon recovered from the effects of the circumcision seal, he came to London; and (being already pretty well tutored in Jewish rites and customs, and also able to read Hebrew with some degree of fluency), he attended the Hamburgh (Hambro) Synagogue where he was called up to the reading of the Law, and was honoured with a Mi Shebairach blessing. He presented that synagogue with one hundred pounds.
Not much is known about his life as a Jew in Birmingham, but the Bristol Journal of Dec. 15, 1787 reports Gordon's presence in Birmingham since August 1786:
unknown to every class of man but those of the Jewish religion, among whom he has passed his time in the greatest cordiality and friendship...he appears with a beard of extraordinary length, and the usual raiment of a Jew... his observance of the culinary preparation is remarkable.
Unable to refrain from typical scurrilousness, the Journal continues:
He was surrounded by a number of Jews, who affirmed that his Lordship was Moses risen from the dead in order to instruct them and enlighten the whole world...It appears that (he) has officiated as a chief of the Levitical Order..."
In January 1788, Mr. McManus, a police officer from Bow Street, discovered Gordon on Dudley Street in the poor, largely Jewish quarter of Birmingham known as the Froggery. He was living in the home of a poor Jewess who sold capers and anchovies about the streets of the town and whose son was a talmid chacham. He was dressed in the clothes of a Polish chassid. He refused to return with McManus to London because it was Shabbat, but the justice who handled the matter insisted. A Jewish friend gave him a box of kosher food for the journey.
For the two libels he was sentenced to a total of five years imprisonment plus a fine of five hundred pounds. He was required to find 10,000 pounds in securities for good behavior for 14 years, and 2 sureties of 2,500 pounds each. Gordon was sent to Newgate prison. As he had some income, he was able to buy himself a private cell which in effect was a comfortable room.
George Gordon was now an Orthodox Jew, and he therefore adjusted his prison life to this circumstance. He put on his talit and t'filin daily. He fasted when the Halacha prescribed it, and likewise celebrated the Yamim Tovim at the proper times. He had kosher meat and wine, and Shabbat challot. The prison authorities permitted him to have a minyan on Shabbat and to affix a mezuza. The Ten Commandments were also hung on his wall for Shabbat to transform the room into a synagogue.
His minyan consisted of ten Polish Jews who no doubt were incarcerated for debt or perhaps for no special reason as England's courts in those days were notorious. Gordon associated only with these pious Polish Jews because in his passionate enthusiasm for his new faith, he refused to deal with any Jew who compromised Torah faith. Although any non-Jew who desired to visit Gordon in prison (and there were many) was welcome, he ordered the prison guards to admit only Jews who had beards and wore head coverings.
A poor Jew named Angel Lyon once requested a personal interview with Lord Gordon. Because he was beardless, he was refused admittance in deference to Gordon's stipulations. This led to a correspondence between the ger tzedek (righteous convert) and Lyon which was later published in pamphlet form under the title of "A Letter from Angel Lyon to the Right Honourable Lord George Gordon on Wearing Beards; with Lord George Gordon's Answer and a Reply from Lyon."
In his introductory letter, Lyon describes his financial plight, mentions Gordon's reputation as a man of chessed and justifies his being unbearded by reference to the sending of Shmuel to the house of Yishai to anoint a king, whereupon Shmuel was surprised that seven of the finest princes should pass before him unapproved. Hash-m then told Shmuel that "Men see only the eyes but G-d sees the heart."
To this, Gordon replied in a remarkable letter of great length. First commenting on Lyon's reference to the choosing of David, he argued as follows:
The L-rd seeth not as man seeth: for man looketh on the outward appearances, but the L-rd looketh on the heart. Yet this expression is not intended to abolish or contradict the laws of outward appearance among the Jews, but to teach that G-d sees through all outward appearances; which, when accompanied with sincerity of heart, constitute hypocrisy. The L-rd was pleased to choose out David from among his seven brothers, because he knew the superior integrity of his heart, and his skillfulness to guide his people Israel; but the history does not insinuate, in the slightest manner, that any of the sons were deficient as Jews, in outward appearances, according to the law.
They were all outwardly qualified for kings in the eyes of Samuel, or he would not have said of the first, who was afterwards rejected, 'Surely the L-rd's anointed is before Him.' Samuel knew that a king, openly and outwardly contradicting the law and the example of G-d's people, would be an abomination, and not a deliverer in Israel...David and his followers taught no new doctrines, in their dispersion or when they came to power, that can be brought to countenance thee at all in shaving off thy beard.
On the importance of looking Jewish, he writes,
They are ashamed of the outward and visible signs, given unto them by G-d himself, and commanded to be preserved by Moses, because it distinguishes them as Jews, in public, from the nobility and gentry of these lands. But this is serving man and despising G-d; it is building up and confirming the dominion of pride on their distractions and divisions, and erasing the foundation, subverting the compactness, and retarding the building of Jerusalem in our days.
This letter so eloquently expresses Gordon's deep emotional commitment to preserving Jewish tradition that any one of its lines and paragraphs would be worth quoting. He signed it, "Israel bar Abraham George Gordon, Felon Side, Newgate."
In Lyon's reply, which is addressed to "Gair Zadak" (his spelling), we have the following:
I beg leave to declare myself, that owing to your Lordship's few words and personal example, on the tenth of June, when I had the honour of waiting upon you, I took the resolution not to shave anymore.
Whereas the first letter was signed Angel Lyon, this is signed "Asher Bar Judah."
Gordon kept himself occupied in prison with t'fila, writing letters, and entertaining guests. He usually had at least eight guests for two o'clock dinner at his kosher table. His large cell was very often overcrowded with people who came to talk with him. He had sympathetic friends in all classes of society. Among his guests were dukes, Italian barbers, ladies of fashion, Jewish shopkeepers, soldiers, members of Parliament, Polish noblemen, American merchants, rabbis and, once, even His Royal Highness. At times Gordon would give a party and entertain his guests with one of seven musical instruments he had mastered.
From his cell Gordon sent out letters to all parts of the world. Some famous recipients of his letters were Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Governor Morris, founders of the American Republic. He also wrote to the House of Commons, often denouncing its members for not abolishing the slave trade. He made appeals on behalf of Jews in other parts of the world. For example, on August 2, 1792 he wrote to "W. Smith, Esq. M.P., Chairman of the Meeting in Support of the People of Poland, at the London Tavern," arguing that "the new constitution of Poland was inadequate since it did not give equal rights to its Jewish citizens as France had done."
He would often go into other parts of the prison to comfort prisoners by speaking with them, playing the violin, and giving what little money he could. Charles Dickens, in his novel Barnaby Rudge, which centers around the "Gordon" riots of 1780, writes about Gordon among the prisoners as follows:
The prisoners bemoaned his loss, and missed him; for though his means were not large his charity was great, and in bestowing alms among them he considered the necessities of all alike, and knew no distinction of sect or creed.
On the 28th of January, 1793, Gordon's sentence expired and he had to appear to give claim to his future good behavior. When appearing in court he was ordered to remove his hat, which he refused to do. The hat was then taken from him by force, but he covered his head with a night cap and bound it with a handkerchief. He defended his behavior concerning his kippa by quoting the Bible "in support of the propriety of the creature having his head covered in reverence to the Creator." Before the court, he read a written statement in which he claimed that "he had been imprisoned for five years among murderers, thieves, etc., and that all the consolation he had arose from his trust in G-d."
Since he had brought as guarantors only two Polish Jews whom the court would not accept, Gordon was again remanded to his prison cello. Although his brothers, the Duke of Gordon and Lord William, and his sister, Lady Susan, offered to cover his bail, Gordon refused their help saying that to "sue for pardon was a confession of guilt."
In October of the same year Gordon caught the dreaded prison fever that had been raging in Newgate that year. Christopher Hibbert, another biographer, writes that scores of prisoners waited outside his door for news of him; friends, regardless of infection, stood whispering in the room and praying for his recovery. But on November 1, 1793 when he was but 42, this virulent form of typhoid took him from this world, and George Gordon's soul returned to its Maker.
It has been reported that Gordon's last moments were make harder by his knowledge that he would not be buried among Jews. He was, in fact, buried "with the utmost privacy" in the St. James' burying ground. Why he could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery is not clear, but it seems that Yisrael bar Avraham Geroge Gordon deserves to be buried among his people - our people. Perhaps the time has come for our Jewish brethren in England to have Yisrael bar Avraham's remains exhumed and brought to Jewish burial.
This article was originally published in Yiddishkeit magazine no. 5 in July 1999
from the August 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine