Observations of Jewish Life

While traveling, Mendes often sought out local Jewish communities. It was a time of turbulence and rebellion in Europe which often affected Jewish populations. Mendes found living conditions of Jews in Italy especially upsetting.

Rome, Italy January 29, 1831

“I have been into the quarter of the jews … there are five gates which are closed at sunset every night… It can hardly be supposed they will always suffer to be degraded in that manner without delivering hand.”

Rome, Italy - March 16, 1831

“I scarcely ever saw so much apparent poverty and wretchedness but withal they appeared contented, not knowing better. I really grieved to look at them.”

Mendes also stayed abreast of the status of Jewish rights in other countries.

Paris, France - February 21, 1830

“You will receive in the no[tice] of today….the motion in the British Parliament for the removal of the civil disabilities of our people.”

Jaffa - September 28, 1832

“The jews are generally poor, they also have to pay a sum each year to the Turkish Governor.”

Mendes wrote extensively about the status of Jewish life in Palestine where he found the country’s living conditions shocking.

Jerusalem - March 24, 1832

“I found and is generally the case three to four families within the walls of [one] house living together. The withal for living is very scarce here. … House rent is cheap. Though you must not suppose they are anything like those we occupy in America. The whole system is different and cannot be easily described.”

“I have seen very few single young girls. They marry when twelve or thirteen years of age. The boys marry at about the same age. The whole is arranged by the parents who have to continue to take care of the youngsters…. The Jewesses do not cover their faces as the Christians and Turkish females - when they go out they wear a handkerchief around their forehead and down each side of their ears … I was accompanied to the house of a young lady to pay my respects on the birth of a son now two days of age. As the parlors are made into bed rooms when bed-time arrives, we were ushered into her presence. The parents, females were at the bedside. The lady is 14 years of age… Was told by the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardim that a Jew may have more than one wife and there are now some in Jerusalem having two and three wives.”

Jerusalem - March 19, 1832

“The whole appearance of these synagogues is that of poverty as they are not allowed to build or add to their buildings without paying a large sum to the Turks.”

How do scenes of extreme poverty make you feel? How would you feel about it if you were rich...or very poor? Does your faith affect the way you view poverty?

Citadel of Jerusalem, April 19 1841 by David Roberts. Lithograph by Louis Haghe, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen was created by:

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Special thanks to: 

The David Berg Foundation; The David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation; Maryland Heritage Area Authority; Homer and Martha Gudelsky Foundation; The Richard and Rosalee C. Davison Foundation; Morris Schapiro + Family Foundation, Barbara P. Katz; The Eliasberg Family Foundation; Members of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Minotaur Mazes.