Solomon Bennett, 1761-1838 Artist, Hebraist and Controversialist

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Solomon Bennett  was a vivid and vigorous personality of \he eighteenth (and nineteenth centuries, who, in my view, has so far not received the attention *^due to him from Anglo-Jewish historians. Of the scanty notices recorded of him many are quite incorrect in their facts, most are only indirect in their interest, and nearly all are chiefly concerned with his polemics against the Chief Rabbi, Solomon Hirschell. I hope to show from my investigations that he is quite worthy of an identity of his own among the notable figures of Anglo-Jewry in a period not particularly con? spicuous for Jewish literary or cultural productivity in this country. Whether as artist, scholar or controversialist, he is sufficiently outstanding to warrant a personal and a permanent place in the Anglo-Jewish story. Until recently this colourful, caustic and sometimes choleric character has been passed over as inconsiderable; and, even where referred to, dismissed somewhat contemptuously as little more than a scribbling, communal squabbler who was inspired merely by personal grievance and whose pen flowed with venomous spite. I have come to the conclusion that this general estimate is quite inadequate and ill-balanced. As an artist, he enjoyed a high European repute; as a scholar, he was equipped with a Hebrew, rabbinic, and general culture quite rare to his environment; and as a polemicist he has, at any rate, the signal merit of having furnished us with a more faithful picture, than did any of his contemporaries, of the social and religious conditions of English Jewry of his time. I believe that the real explanation for his remaining in comparative obscurity is his scathing denunciations of the sad shortcomings of the Community. What he has to say is often extremely un? pleasant, but never far from the truth. This, in my view, is why the historians have neglected him.

On consulting the Jewish Encyclopedia I find a notice on Bennett by Joseph Jacobs, of a dozen or so lines. Now Jacobs was a historian; yet he is quite hazy about the year of Bennett's birth, quite incomplete about the extent of his writings, has barely a word about his art, and is quite incorrect about both the place and date of his death. Obviously Jacobs did not think him worth-while; for he could not even have taken the trouble to discover Bennett's most valuable contribution to the Anglo-Jewish story,?"The Present Reign of the Synagogue at Duke's Place." Admittedly this is a rather rare booklet?not to be found even in the British Museum; nevertheless it is somewhat surprising that Jacobs has no mention of it in his Bibliotheca Anglo-Judaica. And Jacobs seems to have set the pattern for most of his successors in regarding Bennett as of no account. In Matthias Levy's "The Western Synagogue" (London 1897) there are a few scattered references to him and his family, who were active members of that congregation. But it was not until 1921 when Charles Duschinsky published his "Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue" that there was revealed for

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