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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Jewish Quarterly
Vol. 45 No. 4 (Apr. 1955), pp568‑581

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p568 A Reappraisal of Judah Touro

By Bertram W. Korn, Philadelphia

The basic facts of the life of Judah Touro are, for the most part, well known,1 but there is a paucity of documentary information about his personality, character and attitudes. This void in our knowledge about one of the most famous American Jews of the nineteenth century can easily be explained. He was an extremely shy and reticent person who permitted few men to call him friend. To judge by existing records and memoirs, only three men were privileged to have an intimate personal relationship with him: Rezin Shepherd, who had saved his life during the War of 1812 and became his financial adviser and an executor of his estate; the Reverend Theodore Clapp, who was his pensioner for many long years; and Gershom Kursheedt, who was his associate in Jewish affairs and also was appointed to carry out the provisions of his will. All three of these men were recipients of Touro's generosity and were therefore unlikely to speak of him publicly in any personal vein.

It has not been possible thus far to locate any of Shepherd's personal papers, but it is known that he did not write anything publicly about his associations with his Jewish friend. Clapp wrote extensively of Touro's great-hearted generosity to him and to his church in his Autobiographical p569Sketches and Recollections during a Thirty-Five Years' Residence in New Orleans,2 but his eulogistic tributes do not help us to pierce the veil of mystery which shrouds the personality of the philanthropist. Kursheedt, as we shall see, was the only Touro intimate who spoke frankly about his benefactor, but his insights have been hidden in manuscript form for over a century.

In addition, it is hardly likely that any substantial group of letters from Touro's hand (except cold, impersonal letters, such as are already available) will be discovered. He had virtually no family to write to, and an examination of the papers of possible recipients of his correspondence has been altogether disappointing. His own files and account and copy books were burned, at his explicit instructions, about a year after his death.3

Lacking any but the most laudatory descriptions of Touro, and judging him almost solely by the majestic benefactions of his philanthropic career — to the First Congregationalist Church of New Orleans, to the Bunker Hill Monument, and to a host of Jewish and Christian and non-sectarian causes in his last will and testament — historical writers and others have weaved an aura of beneficence and social vision about him for which there is no actual evidence. They have portrayed him as a man of rich Jewish loyalties, of clear insight into social needs, and of warm, humane feelings, throughout his life. This description of Touro, however, is the product of wishful imagination; it is not supported by the few shreds of evidence which have been uncovered.

I

Far from having been an avid leader and participant in Jewish life and Jewish causes in New Orleans from the earliest years of Jewish communal organization in the city, Touro appears on only two occasions prior to 1847 to have taken even the slightest interest in the life of his fellow Jews.

His first expression of interest was in 1828 when Jacob S. Solis of New York organized the first New Orleans congregation, "The Israelite Congregation of Shanarai-Chasset," and Touro was listed (mistakenly as "J. Turo") not as a member of the congregation, but as one of "the Israelite Donors, who are not members of the Congregation."4

The fact that Touro would not consent to join this first congregation in the city where he had probably been the first Jew to establish permanent residence is astonishing. Just as significant, however, is the fact that he was apparently so indifferent to the fortunes of the congregation that, when its officers purchased a lot for a cemetery,5 they felt compelled to write to the founder, Jacob S. Solis, on August 29, 1829, asking him to try to get them a loan of $500, on interest, with the cemetery property as collateral or on mortgage, from some New York Jews.6 Touro, evidently, although a wealthy man p571and a contributor to Christian endeavors, could not be persuaded to give the loan or to make a substantial enough contribution to defray the cost of the cemetery lot, which amounted to $361.25. In 1843 the congregation issued a broadside appeal for help from Jews in other communities in raising funds for the construction of a synagogue;7 Touro's name was not signed to the appeal. Indeed, no appeal would have been necessary had he contributed according to his means.

His second act of participation in Jewish affairs did not concern New Orleans, but rather Philadelphia. Mikveh Israel Congregation of that city was conducting a campaign for building funds in 1823‑4, and its officials were writing to prominent Jews in various cities throughout the country and abroad in an effort to gain support. Touro was among a number of Jews in New Orleans who were appealed to, and who responded. He contributed three hundred dollars of the total sum of one thousand dollars which was raised among five men, including R. L. Rochelle, who was originally a Philadelphian and who was conceivably the organizer of the solicitation in New Orleans. The draft was forwarded from New Orleans to Joseph Gratz, treasurer of the Mikveh Israel Building Fund in Touro's name on March 11, 1824.7a But Touro treated with utter p572indifference the effort of the Jews of Cincinnati to raise funds in New Orleans for the building of a synagogue in the Queen City. Requests for such assistance were circulated among the Jews of New Orleans in 1826 and again in 1835, but Touro's name was not included among those who subscribed.8

The Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, the editor of the first successful American-Jewish periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, and the leading rabbi of the time, who probably knew as much about Touro as anyone who was not a resident of New Orleans, said bluntly that "it was late in life when Mr. T. became impressed with the necessity of being an Israelite in more than in mere words."9 This explicit statement is supported by the fact that it was not until about 1847,10 seven years before his death, that Touro began to do anything to perpetuate Jewish life in New Orleans. In that year he purchased an Episcopal church and set about making the multifarious and expensive arrangements for its conversion into a synagogue for the Sephardic congregation Nefutzoth Yehudah.11 The following year he made a contribution of $500 to the incipient University of Louisiana for the award of a gold medal each year to that student who most p573distinguished himself in the Hebrew language and its literature.12

Leeser testified after Touro's death that the latter was a "regular attendant" at the services which were held in the synagogue which his largesse had created13 . . . but the implication of his statement was that Touro had not regularly worshipped with his fellow Jews in the makeshift services which had been conducted previously.

Indeed, nothing else is known of Touro's personal piety beyond Leeser's laconic comment other than another bit of evidence which relates to his abstinence from work on the Sabbath, also dating from the last years of his life. This additional clue is contained in a letter which Touro wrote to the Firemen's Charitable Association of New Orleans after a disastrous fire which destroyed some of his property, the major portion of which was rescued, however, through the efforts of the local fire companies:

New Orleans, January 5th, 1852.

H. Bier, Esq.,
President,
Firemen's Charitable Association:

Sir:—

Having been made aware of the exhausted state of your treasury, and knowing the usefulness of fire departments, as exhibited on Saturday morning last, when through the activity of several companies, a considerable portion of my property was saved, I beg to present the enclosed one thousand dollars and hope that it may temporarily relieve the widows and orphans dependent on the association for support.

p574 Saturday, on which the fire occurred, being my Sabbath, has prevented me from sending this until this morning.

Very respectfully,
J. Touro.14

II

Touro's failure to take any role in Jewish life in New Orleans until the last years of his life stands out in startling contrast to the support which he very generously gave not only to non-sectarian causes in New Orleans and elsewhere,15 but also to Christian activities in the city over a long period of time. His personal benevolence supported a Christian minister, the Reverend Theodore Clapp, and his congregation, the Church of the Messiah, for twenty-eight years.16 He was, in addition, the benefactor of another church, Christ Church, the first Protestant congregation in New Orleans, and was the owner of a pew in it from 1819 on.17 These facts are not cited to imply that Touro ever contemplated apostasy or conversion. Indeed, it is said that he never even entered the church which he owned, or heard a sermon delivered by the good pastor, his friend Clapp.18 But surely Touro's inverted concern for religious life should not be glossed p575over or ignored. If it was true that Touro said, as Clapp quoted him, "that, though an Israelite to the bottom of his soul, it would give him the sincerest pleasure to see all the churches flourishing in their respective ways, and that he was heartily sorry that they did not more generally fraternize with, love, and help each other,"19 he appears to have demonstrated a peculiar lack of interest in the welfare of his own religious group until close to the end of his life.

It would be fruitless to guess at the reasons which motivated Touro's neglectful attitude towards organized Jewish life, for there is no evidence whatsoever to give us clues. But this much can be demonstrated: whatever the explanation of Touro's indifference towards Jewish life before 1847, Gershom Kursheedt must have played a major role in his change of heart.

III

Kursheedt was a New Orleans broker and journalist who became Touro's adviser, counsel and goad in Jewish affairs. His parentage helps to explain his own magnificent devotion to his faith. His father, Israel Baer Kursheedt, who had studied for the rabbinate as a young man in Germany, founded or became the presiding officer of a larger number of Jewish organizations and congregations, after his emigration to America, than any other man of his time. Gershom's mother, Sarah Abigail, was a daughter of the first native-born American-Jewish clergyman, the well-known Revolutionary hazzan, Gershom Mendes Seixas. Born in Richmond in 1815, Gershom Kursheedt is known to have been a resident of New Orleans by 1841, when his name first appears in the city Directory. He immediately assumed a leading role in New Orleans Jewish life, became p576treasurer of the New Orleans Hebrew Benevolent Society, which was founded in 1844, and served as president of the congregation for which Touro provided a synagogue. One of his unofficial duties was his activity as New Orleans agent for Isaac Leeser's publications; Kursheedt sold Bibles and prayer-books and subscriptions to the Occident.20

It is fortunate that Kursheedt wrote a long series of letters to Leeser, reporting to him on Jewish activities in New Orleans. These letters, preserved in the Leeser Manuscript Collection in the Library of Dropsie College, testify to Kursheedt's service as a relentless foe of Jewish indifferentism and a valiant champion of positive Jewish living. They describe his forthright efforts to stimulate an intensified interest on the part of his co‑religionists. They also reveal a portrait of Judah Touro which has never before been exposed to public view, and they underscore Kursheedt's own role as the driving power behind Touro's Jewish philanthropies.

Kursheedt's words delineate Touro as an eccentric, petulant, indecisive, suspicious, crotchety, difficult, downright "peculiar", person. He was not, apparently, a warm or kindly or lovable person. Kursheedt's self-imposed task of attempting to extract Touro's money for the synagogue and its appurtenances and other causes was excruciatingly difficult. He frequently became so upset and impatient as to feel like throwing over the whole objective of convincing Touro to sue his tremendous wealth for p577the support of Judaism. Touro could rarely make up his mind as to what he really wanted, and frequently had to be persuaded all over again. It is an extraordinarily vivid portrait of Touro which Kursheedt presents.

Let him speak for himself:

". . . Mr. Touro is the very impersonation of a snail, not to say of a crab whose progress (to use a paradox) is usually backward. My patience is well nigh exhausted with him and I am interrogated by so many concerning his intentions that it is not unusual for me to dodge a corner in order to avoid meeting certain parties who seem to think that I am making a mystery of the matter [of when the synagogue will be completed] . . ."21

". . . The only answer I get [from Touro] is 'well we will see' 'there is time enough etc etc.' I can not order the man and as Mr. Shepherd tells me I must be very careful to humor him or in an instant all may be lost . . ."22

". . . Mr. Touro keeps me in hot water with them [the Jews of New Orleans] all the time and I sometimes wish myself anywhere but in New Orleans. He has always turned the subject when I alluded to the matter of which you wrote me I mean the School in your city23 and now I have concluded just to push him as often as I can get to see him in fixing and donating the Shule [synagogue] here. Four times within a month have I begged him to say what he will do towards our getting a Hazan but I can gleamº nothing approximating definiteness . . ."24

". . . I discovered that the ceiling of the building was so defective as to be really dangerous and after some p578weeks lost in convincing Mr. Touro of this he acceded to my wish . . . I hope ere many days that Mr. Touro will tell me to order out what we require [synagogue ritual fixtures and appurtenances] but he is dreadfully slow and the concern has cost him so much already that he is perhaps to be excused from holding back, particularly as he gets no very low estimate of the cost of Sepharim Bells [crowns and bells for the Torah scrolls] from me . . ."25

". . . As regards more money, you had best write direct to Mr. Touro at once, as he is very slow . . . By the bye, say a word to him upon the importance of the convention . . . so that whatever expression may grow out of the convention, he may not think the means of the Congregation are squandered . . ."26

". . . You know he is a strange man . . ."27

". . . He goes his own way despite the counsel of friends and the natural warnings of Providence . . ."28

With all due allowances for exaggeration, one cannot but conclude that Gershom Kursheedt was telling the basic truth about Touro. These letters were written for Leeser's eyes alone, and, to his friend, Kursheedt was willing to pour out his heart. But to the outside world Kursheedt was silent. There is no indication that he spoke in this vein to anyone but Leeser.

IV

Doggedly, Kursheedt kept to his task of gaining Touro's interest in the support of Jewish causes. And he accomplished much as time went on. The Sephardic congregation would have had no synagogue, cemetery, or spiritual leader were it not for Kursheedt's success with Touro. He even prevailed upon him to contribute five thousand dollars to the German congregation which he had refused to join when it was organized in 1827‑8.29

But Kursheedt's most fervent desire was to stimulate Touro to make meaningful bequests in his will. After all, the old bachelor had no immediate family, and only a few cousins whom he had not seen in almost a life-time. In his will, if ever, lay the opportunity to support worthwhile causes. Kursheedt succeeded, but only in part. Touro would make no provision for national cultural needs such as a rabbinical seminary or a publication society;30 he seemed to be unable to grasp the importance of such basic institutions. But nonetheless the list of Jewish institutions to which Touro bequeathed money is the most impressive ever to have appeared in the will of an American Jew. And to Kursheedt must go much of the credit and gratitude. As Rabbi Julius Eckman of Mobile wrote to Leeser immediately after the publication of the will, "this is Mr. Kursheedt's doing, he can congratulate himself . . ."31 But Kursheedt was not congratulating himself; he was spiritually exhausted. Witness his letter to Leeser, dated February 19, 1854:

p580 ". . . Oh my dear friend, if you knew how I had to work to get that will made and how I strove to serve you, you would pity me. Alas, it was not altogether what I wanted, yet I am thankful to God that even if I injured myself I got the most of what I asked for Israel — arguments, changes and counter-changes in the sums for Institutions, til my heart sickened. I appeared calm, but indeed was almost crazy, ever dreading that nothing would be achieved in the end. The list of Jewish Institutions I made up as well as I could. I had dreadful hard work to raise your Education Society from 10 to 20,000 . . .

". . . Poor good old man, he had noble impulses, but his great misfortune was his want of education. Some of his notions were good, and to the extent that I can, I will carry them out . . ."32

Kursheedt, then, must be regarded as, at the very least, a partner in Touro's splendid Jewish benefactions, but perhaps even more, as their actual initiator. Without Kursheedt's stimulation and persuasiveness, apparently, Touro might well have bequeathed his great fortune to non-sectarian institutions in New Orleans, and to his family's ancestral synagogue and cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island.

With Kursheedt's strong loyalties badgering him, however, Touro in death transcended the life he had lived. Captious, shy, insecure, reticent, he had been during his life. But in his death he became a leader of American Jewry.

The importance of Touro's will cannot be overestimated. To dozens of Jewish congregations and organizations p581throughout the country, many of them newly created, practically all in financial straits, he gave both material and spiritual encouragement. To thousands of newly-arrived Jewish immigrants, hesitating on the threshold of Americanization, he exemplified a height of generosity and success, and a happy combination of Judaism and Americanism, which served to spur their ambitions and their acculturation to the new land. To millions of Americans he contributed a benevolent portrait of "the Jew" which contrasted forcefully with distorted folk-images tainted with prejudice. To Jews in Europe, including the kindly Sir Moses Montefiore, into whose hands he entrusted the responsibility (with Gershom Kursheedt) for carrying out his bequests to the poor of Jerusalem, he extended a new impression of the American Jew which helped to counteract the European-Jewish concept of the rough, uncouth, uncultured, irreligious American-Jewish frontiersman.

Despite an unprepossessing lifetime, the major part of which was prosaic and undramatic, which was wanting in those aspects of affection and companionship and love that make life beautiful, Touro earned himself a memorable niche in any story of American Jewish life through those activities of his last years and those portions of his unique will which bore the impress of Kursheedt's staunch Jewish loyalty.


The Author's Notes:

1 Leon Huhner, The Life of Judah Touro (1775‑1854), Phila., 1946, is the standard biography. For assistance in locating some of the material referred to in this essay, I am indebted to Miss Louise Hubert Guyol of New Orleans, and to Professor Jacob Rader Marcus, Director of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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2 Boston, 1857.

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3 New York Herald, June 18, 1855, copied from New Orleans Courier, June 8, 1855, cited in The Lyons Collection, II, (Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 27), New York, 1920, pp420‑1.

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4 The Constitution and By‑Laws of the Israelite Congregation, of Shanarai-Chasset, (Gates of Mercy), of the City of New Orleans, State of Louisiana. Founded February 2d, A. M. 5588, by Jacob S. Solis, of the State of New York. December 20, 1827, New Orleans, 1828, p16. Copy from the library of J. Solis-Cohen, Jr., in American Jewish Archives.

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5 "Act of Sale of Property by Manis Jacobs unto Israelite Congregation, April 28, 1828, passed before Carlisle Pollock, Notary Public," copy from Office of Custodian of Notarial Records, Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana, in American Jewish Archives.

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6 Leo Shpall, "The First Synagogue in Louisiana," reprint from Louisiana Historical Quarterly, XXI (April, 1938), pp5‑6.

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7 The Occident and American Jewish Advocate (= OCC), I (Oct, 1843), pp352‑3.

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7a Hebrew Congregation Subscription Book, 1818‑1824, MS. account book kept by Joseph Gratz, and retained among the records of Mikveh Israel Congregation. The other New Orleans contributors were A. N. Nathans, Samuel Herman (or Harmon), and H. M. Schiff. Significantly, Touro is the only one of the five to appear among the members or contributors to the first New Orleans congregation, as noted in its Constitution, op. cit. It is altogether possible that Rochelle, who in a brief time returned to Philadelphia and died there, and the others, were Philadelphia men in New Orleans on business trips, and that he or they together were successful in persuading Touro to contribute, because of mutual business relationships. Mr. Maxwell Whiteman, currently researching the history of the Jews of Philadelphia, permitted me the use of his extensive notes on the Mikveh Israel records after Touro's contribution was brought to my attention.

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8 Max Heller, Jubilee Souvenir of Temple Sinai 1872‑1922, New Orleans, 1922, pp2‑3; OCC II (April, 1844), p30; (June, 1844), p144; David Philipson, "The Cincinnati Community in 1825," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society No. 10, New York, 1902, p99.

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9 OCC XI (March, 1854), p591.

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10 Unless we regard Touro's subscribing to the Occident (I, Aug., 1843), p216) as evidence of anything other than Kursheedt's salesmanship.

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11 Heller, op. cit., p5; OCC VII (July, 1849), pp224‑5.

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12 Huhner, op. cit., pp74‑5; De Bow's Review V (March, 1848), p24.

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13 OCC XI (March, 1854), p591.

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14 The Daily Delta (New Orleans), Jan. 6, 1852, p2.

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15 Huhner, op. cit., pp60‑84. As an example of the exaggeration to which Touro's benefactions have been subjected, the case of the Touro Free Library might be cited. Huhner (p68) reads as though Touro erected a building for the library, but he did no such thing. The Touro Free Library was from its beginning in 1824 to its close in approximately 1832 housed in the Presbyterian Church: The Louisiana Gazette, May 8, 1824, p2, and the New Orleans Directory for 1832, p209.

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16 Clapp, op. cit., pp101, 103.

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17 Christ Church History, New Orleans, 1937, p11.

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18 Huhner, p71.

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19 Clapp, op. cit., p97. Italics his.

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20 For the elder Kursheedt, see references to him in the indices of The Lyons Collection, and Herbert T. Ezekiel and Gaston Lichtenstein, The History of the Jews of Richmond from 1769 to 1917, Richmond, 1917. For Gershom Kursheedt, see obituary in The Jewish Chronicle (London), May 15, 1863. He died in England on May 7, 1863. He was the editor of The New Orleans Times Commercial from Nov. 2, 1845 to Feb. 7, 1849. See also The Israelites of Louisiana, New Orleans, n. d., pp29‑30, for a brief sketch of his career.

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21 Dec. 18, 1848.

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22 Ibid.

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23 This is undoubtedly a reference to Leeser's favorite project of a Jewish school of higher learning, which was paramount in his thinking at this time. Bertram W. Korn, "The First American Jewish Theological Seminary: Maimonides College, 1867‑1873," Eventful Years and Experiences, Cincinnati, 1954, p155.

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24 Dec. 18, 1848.

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25 Jan. 1, 1849. Kursheedt is undoubtedly being sarcastic here. The silver crowns and bells would be a comparatively minor item in the total cost of buying a building, remodeling it, and furnishing it with the equipment necessary for synagogue worship.

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26 May 2, 1849. The "convention" is the conference called by Isaac Leeser and Isaac Mayer Wise, but never convened for lack of response, to consider pressing problems in Jewish religious life: Bertram W. Korn, "American Jewish Life in 1849," Eventful Years and Experiences, pp35‑8.

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27 May 3, 1853.

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28 June 15, 1853.

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29 Huhner, op. cit., pp90, 92.

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30 There is no doubt but that Kursheedt asked for this. See his letter of Dec. 18, 1848, cited above, and another letter of March 20, 1849, in which he refers to his efforts to interest Touro in the justice Publication Society.

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31 Jan. 25, 1854, in the Leeser MSS. Collection.

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32 That Kursheedt did so is well attested. See, for instance, David de Sola Pool, "Some Relations of Gershom Kursheedt and Sir Moses Montefiore," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 37, New York, 1947, pp213‑20. Touro at least made possible and necessary the trips to England which resulted in Kursheedt's marriage to a Miss Guedalla; see the Jewish Chronicle, op. cit.


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