Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Jews of York.

Among the most interesting passages of history are those in which we contemplate an oppressed, yet sublime spirit, agitated by the conflict of two terrific passions: implacable hatred attempting a resolute vengeance, while that vengeance, though impotent, with dignified and silent horror, sinks into the last expression of despair. In a degenerate nation, we may, on such rare occasions, discover among them a spirit superior to its companions and its fortune.

In the ancient and modern history of the Jews we may find two kindred examples. I refer the reader for the more ancient narrative to the second book of Maccabees, chap. xiv. v. 37. No feeble and unaffecting painting is presented in the simplicity of the original. I proceed to relate the narrative of the Jews of York.

When Richard I. ascended the throne, the Jews, to conciliate the royal protection, brought their tributes. Many had hastened from remote parts of England, and appearing at Westminster, the court and the mob imagined that they had leagued to bewitch his majesty. An edict was issued to forbid their presence at the coronation; but several, whose curiosity was greater than their prudence, conceived that they might pass unobserved among the crowd, and ventured to insinuate themselves into the abbey. Probably their voice and their visage alike betrayed them, for they were soon discovered; they flew diversely in great consternation, while many were dragged out with little remains of life.

A rumour spread rapidly through the city, that in honour of the festival the Jews were to be massacred. The populace, at once eager of royalty and riot, pillaged and burnt their houses, and murdered the devoted Jews. Benedict, a Jew of York, to save his life, received baptism; and returning to that city, with his friend Jocenus, the most opulent of the Jews, died of his wounds. Jocenus and his servants narrated the late tragic circumstances to their neighbours, but where they hoped to move sympathy they excited rage. The people at York soon gathered to imitate the people at London; and their first assault was on the house of the late Benedict, which having some strength and magnitude, contained his family and friends, who found their graves in its ruins. The alarmed Jews hastened to Jocenus, who conducted them to the governor of York Castle, and prevailed on him to afford them an asylum for their persons and effects. In the mean while their habitations were levelled, and the owners murdered, except a few unresisting beings, who, unmanly in sustaining honour, were adapted to receive baptism.

The castle had sufficient strength for their defence; but a suspicion arising that the governor, who often went out, intended to betray them, they one day refused him entrance. He complained to the sheriff of the county, and the chiefs of the violent party, who stood deeply indebted to the Jews, uniting with him, orders were issued to attack the castle. The cruel multitude, united with the soldiery, felt such a desire of slaughtering those they intended to despoil, that the sheriff, repenting of the order, revoked it, but in vain; fanaticism and robbery once set loose will satiate their appetency for blood and plunder. They solicited the aid of the superior citizens, who, perhaps not owing quite so much money to the Jews, humanely refused it; but having addressed the clergy (the barbarous clergy of those days) were by them animated, conducted, and blest.

The leader of this rabble was a canon regular, whose zeal was so fervent that he stood by them in his surplice, which he considered as a coat of mail, and reiteratedly exclaimed, “Destroy the enemies of Jesus!” This spiritual laconism invigorated the arm of men who perhaps wanted no other stimulative than the hope of obtaining the immense property of the besieged. It is related of this canon, that every morning before he went to assist in battering the walls he swallowed a consecrated wafer. One day having approached too near, defended as he conceived by his surplice, this church militant was crushed by a heavy fragment of the wall, rolled from the battlement.

But the avidity of certain plunder prevailed over any reflection, which, on another occasion, the loss of so pious a leader might have raised. Their attacks continued; till at length the Jews perceived they could hold out no longer, and a council was called, to consider what remained to be done in the extremity of danger.

Among the Jews, their elder Rabbin was most respected. It has been customary with this people to invite for this place some foreigner, renowned among them for the depth of his learning, and the sanctity of his manners. At this time the Haham, or elder Rabbin, was a foreigner, who had been sent over to instruct them in their laws, and was a person, as we shall observe, of no ordinary qualifications. When the Jewish council was assembled, the Haham rose, and addressed them in this manner —“Men of Israel! the God of our ancestors is omniscient, and there is no one who can say, Why doest thou this? This day He commands us to die for His law; for that law which we have cherished from the first hour it was given, which we have preserved pure throughout our captivity in all nations, and which for the many consolations it has given us, and the eternal hope it communicates, can we do less than die? Posterity shall behold this book of truth, sealed with our blood; and our death, while it displays our sincerity, shall impart confidence to the wanderer of Israel. Death is before our eyes; and we have only to choose an honourable and easy one. If we fall into the hands of our enemies, which you know we cannot escape, our death will be ignominious and cruel; for these Christians, who picture the Spirit of God in a dove, and confide in the meek Jesus, are athirst for our blood, and prowl around the castle like wolves. It is therefore my advice that we elude their tortures; that we ourselves should be our own executioners; and that we voluntarily surrender our lives to our Creator. We trace the invisible Jehovah in his acts; God seems to call for us, but let us not be unworthy of that call. Suicide, on occasions like the present, is both rational and lawful; many examples are not wanting among our forefathers: as I advise, men of Israel, they have acted on similar occasions.” Having said this, the old man sat down and wept.

The assembly was divided in their opinions. Men of fortitude applauded its wisdom, but the pusillanimous murmured that it was a dreadful counsel.

Again the Rabbin rose, and spoke these few words in a firm and decisive tone:—“My children! since we are not unanimous in our opinions, let those who do not approve of my advice depart from this assembly!"— Some departed, but the greater number attached themselves to their venerable priest. They now employed themselves in consuming their valuables by fire; and every man, fearful of trusting to the timid and irresolute hand of the women, first destroyed his wife and children, and then himself. Jocenus and the Rabbin alone remained. Their lives were protracted to the last, that they might see everything performed, according to their orders. Jocenus being the chief Jew, was distinguished by the last mark of human respect, in receiving his death from the consecrated hand of the aged Rabbin, who immediately after performed the melancholy duty on himself.

All this was transacted in the depth of the night. In the morning the walls of the castle were seen wrapt in flames, and only a few miserable and pusillanimous beings, unworthy of the sword, were viewed on the battlements, pointing to their extinct brethren. When they opened the gates of the castle, these men verified the prediction of their late Rabbin; for the multitude, bursting through the solitary courts, found themselves defrauded of their hopes, and in a moment avenged themselves on the feeble wretches who knew not how to die with honour.

Such is the narrative of the Jews of York, of whom the historian can only cursorily observe that five hundred destroyed themselves; but it is the philosopher who inquires into the causes and the manner of these glorious suicides. These are histories which meet only the eye of few, yet they are of infinitely more advantage than those which are read by every one. We instruct ourselves in meditating on these scenes of heroic exertion; and if by such histories we make but a slow progress in chronology, our heart however expands with sentiment.

I admire not the stoicism of Cato, more than the fortitude of the Rabbin; or rather we should applaud that of the Rabbin much more; for Cato was familiar with the animating visions of Plato, and was the associate of Cicero and of Caesar. The Rabbin had probably read only the Pentateuch, and mingled with companions of mean occupations, and meaner minds. Cato was accustomed to the grandeur of the mistress of the universe; and the Rabbin to the littleness of a provincial town. Men, like pictures, may be placed in an obscure and unfavourable light; but the finest picture, in the unilluminated corner, still retains the design and colouring of the master. My Rabbin is a companion for Cato. His history is a tale

Which Cato’s self had not disdained to hear. — POPE.

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