Among the unsung
heroes of the Jewish East End is Rabbi Isaac Suwalsky. Born in
Poland in 1860, he died in poverty in the London hospital,
Whitechapel, in 1913. Some 16 years earlier he founded the
Hebrew journal HaYehoodi (The Jew) and through this
endeavour strove to promote Hebrew as a living language. He was
Orthodox to his bones and wrote The Life of the Jew according
to the Talmud. Despite his Orthodoxy he shocked his readers
when he pleaded in an article in HaYehoodi for absolution
for masses forced by circumstances to work on Shabbath. He was
a pioneer of Zionism and was in the Anglo-Jewish delegation to
the sixth Zionist conference in Basle in 1903. Other notable
Anglo-Jewish delegates included Israel Zangwill and the Reverend
J K Goldbloom (another pioneer of modern Hebrew).
At his funeral
oration, Dayan Feldman of the Federation of Synagogues said:
“When he first came to this country it was quite desolate as far
as Hebrew was concerned, and it was due mainly to Suwalsky that
the Hebrew language and literature made such progress in the
country in recent years.”
funeral procession was followed by a large number of Jews
including notable rabbis and dayans (Jewish judges). The hearse
processed from Pelham Street, Spitalfields, then along Brick
Lane, stopping briefly at Spitalfields Great synagogue, and
hence to Philpot Street synagogue for the funeral oration.
Rabbi Suwalsky’s dying words are reported to have been: “Look
after my wife and children,” and to this effect an appeal was
promoted through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. The Board
of the Federation of synagogues proposed sending a letter of
condolence to his widow. The motion was supported by Lord
Swaythling (Samuel Montagu) and was passed unanimously. Today
Rabbi Isaac Suwalsky lies almost forgotten in the Federation
cemetery in Edmonton. His memory deserves better. He was my
cousin’s wife’s grandfather.
The headstone of Rabbi Isaac Suwalsky z'l
is below, together with a translation of the Hebrew inscription
on the headstone:
Here is the
resting place of the rabbi, the sagely author,
Our teacher and
rabbi, Isaac Suwalsky of blessed memory.
The son of our
teacher and Rabbi Shimshon of blessed memory.
passed away in the 53rd year of his life on the 12th Iyar
in the year
5673. May his soul be bound up in everlasting life.
Isaac you were a
sacrifice on the altar of literature.
of work you edited for the community at large.
influence you wrote 'The Life of the Jew'.
literature with occasional Jewish pieces.
Also your speedy
pen wrote many words - your mouth spoke the language of
benefited from your book 'The Life of the Jew'.
generation lost you, it's foundation stone.
knowledge of your books is highly regarded in great numbers by
Isaac may your
memory be for a blessing in every community.
Great is the
sorrow and the loss amongst those who honour you.
Philip W, July