© Marcus Roberts (2012)


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In 1839 Morris Lissack arrived in Bedford and became the key figure in the latter history of the community. He was a very interesting individual - he was a new breed of very public and confident Jew who fought to secure the reality of Jewish emancipation in his own community. He fervently believed that England was a country of liberty and opportunity and decided that Jewish citizens had every right to enjoy their freedoms. He was also active in local issues of general social welfare (though especially education) and was actively involved with Liberal politics and particularly the campaign to permit Jewish M.P.s.

He became a very forthright campaigner as well as the natural leader of the Bedford community. He succeeded in gaining Jewish children religious equality in the Harpur trust in 1847, which was in its own way significant, in gaining Jewish rights to equal education. In 1850 Lissack took anti-Semitic bullies of his sons at the local Commercial School to court and won. He reasoned that England was a land of fairness and liberty and that his children should be able to "...go about in and open and fearless manner, and not be insulted by individuals who cannot know the principals of their religion."

In 1851 Lissack published a homiletic autobiography in Bedford entitled "Jewish Perseverance". The work sketched his life, and how Jewish values had ensured his own success against many set-backs and obstacles. The book sought to better inform its largely Christian readers about Judaism and Jewish life using his own life an example. However it is evident that its real thrust was a "no holds barred" attack on the integrity of Jewish missionaries and of their converts and argued that once a Jew, a Jews should always remain a Jew.

In his strong anti-missionary stance, the scandal of Nathan Joseph must have been a great influence, as well as the continuing threat of missionaries of the Jews in Bedford, when the community was in decline. Much of the latter part of the book relates to the activities of two phoney Jewish converts in Bedford in 1846, which Lissack had exposed to the discredit of the Revd. Grimshawe.

Apparently, some Jews went around the country pretending to convert to Christianity, on a regular basis to gain financially from gullible Christians. It seems that at the very least the "converts" enjoyed the free board and lodging as guests of the Jewish community while they established their Jewish credentials and then when they had "succumbed" to the superior truth of Christianity, they stood at the very least to gain from a collection taken at the baptism to speed the new converts on their way in their new lives and other gestures of good will!

Such revelations no doubt had shock value in both Jewish and Christian communities and it seems that a few Jews at least did engage in this religious confidence trick. However Lissack was essentially caricaturing a rather more complex situation exposing his largely polemical interests. It may be noted that while under going a Christian conversion was considered beyond the pale by the Jewish community, masquerading as a Christian for financial gain was not always regarded as such. There is one case at least (in Nottingham) where a Jewish rogue rejoiced in the nick name "The Quaker" as a recollection of a confidence trick he had played on one of that denomination.

Lissack's own personal story is of interest, as he relates why he came to England, how he established himself and why he settled permanently in Bedford. As such it gives a good impression of the sorts of personal stories of Jewish immigrants that are now largely lost as well as how the "greener" established himself both in the country and a particular place.

Lissack came of a good family in Germany and received a traditional Talmudic education. He came to England in 1835 almost by chance - his family had heard that a wealthy relative in England had left a large sum of money. Eventually, Lissack determined as a young man to go and get it for his family. He was dispatched with all his necessaries and quite a large sum of money. At the port of dispatch he was fleeced of a large sum by a fellow Jew and he arrived not long after at the port of London, and if he was light in pocket, he was full in heart of expectation. He was impressed by the forest of masts at the London docks which gave him a vision of the industry of the country. He also felt that he was indeed breathing the air of freedom in England.

After settling himself in lodgings he went and introduced himself to the chief rabbi (as it seems many new immigrants did). Here he met with a serious set back. While his relative's legacy had indeed been large, much of it had gone to relatives in England and only two pounds had been left for the family in Germany!

Lissack was considerably downhearted by this turn in events. At this point he had a choice - either to head back home ashamed, or to stay and make the best of things in England before returning at some point. Like others before him, youthful pride made him stay, rather than admit defeat.

At this point he took advice from another Jew as to what a man in his situation should do. As the result of his consultations he pawned his clothes and gold watch and brought a basic street hawkers stock. In this case he traded in pencils, pens and stationary at London Bridge. Ladies and Gentlemen brought from him, especially when they were aware he was new to the country. This interlude enabled him to pick up the basics in English and to painfully save a sum of £15.

He invested this in a more general hawker's stock and he traveled the countryside for two years now his English was better. Lissack picked up some of his English by comparing the Hebrew Bible with the English Bible. Eventually he desired a more permanent base in his travels and alighted on Bedford as he had good trade in the town, had been kindly treated by the inhabitants - and the deciding factor he heard that there were other Jews in town. He "...determined to make this town, as it were, my central settlement, and to limit my travels to its immediate neighborhood." It may also be said that Lissack had by this point become a decided Anglophile and in his book he extols the virtues of England and the character of its peoples. In particular he rejoiced in the "liberty of conscience" in England especially compared to the oppression of Prussia.

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