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Israel Samuel – A Family Story

When we first heard the exciting news that our ancestor Israel Samuel was going to be honoured by a commemorative plaque in Brighton, my sons asked me if I could tell them about this interesting forebear who I have been researching over several years. I answered this, as I always have when my children were… Read more »

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When we first heard the exciting news that our ancestor Israel Samuel was going to be honoured by a commemorative plaque in Brighton, my sons asked me if I could tell them about this interesting forebear who I have been researching over several years. I answered this, as I always have when my children were young, by means of a story, though my sons are now grown and will soon be telling stories to their own children.

My attempts to understand the origins of Israel Samuel’s line have often ended in multiple brick walls of varying height and thickness, leaving me little with which to furnish a proper history. We don’t know exactly when Israel Samuel (aka Asher Amschel/Ensele/Ensli ben Samuel Cohen) was born or his country of birth. We know little of his parents or if he had siblings.

Instead I tell my sons to imagine a scene. We are peering through a small window into a darkened interior, the glass slightly clouded with fresh salt spray and distorted with age. Yet I can still see him, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Israel Samuel. His concentrated efforts at the workbench spark my curiosity. With small careful taps, metal against metal, he works on some creative project. At first, I think it must be some precious piece of silverware destined for a new synagogue. Alternatively, it may be a small commission from a wealthy client, as many new grand avenues of beautiful homes that require furnishing will be built in the vicinity of Israel’s workshop.

Yet, when I look closer, I see it is a repair of a child’s toy. My ancestor knows what he’s doing. His movements are deft and skillful. He works with love as if the toy might belong to one of his own children – Fanny perhaps, who never marries but devotedly cares for her beloved widowed mother Susanna. Or maybe it belongs to Kitty, who marries into a successful mercantile family who trade at Duke’s Place by the Great Synagogue in London, or her brother, Abraham, who is most interested in clockwork mechanisms and is destined to become a skilled watch and clock manufacturer with his brother and, later, his own son in London. But perhaps, the toy belongs to Sampson, known affectionately as Sammy. Sadly, this first Sampson, the direct ancestor of our family here in New Zealand, dies young before the birth of his second child Sampson Samuel Jr. in 1806 at Little Alie Street, Goodman’s Fields, in the East End of London.

The distorted glass lets me see little, yet sometimes when the wind is in the right direction I hear music: someone singing, laughter, and small feet running up and down stairs. I see Israel momentarily set aside his work as a child enters the room. In the confined area of the small workspace behind his shop, Israel catches up the child and together they move in a slow dance as Israel chants what could well be a beautiful old nursery rhyme: joyful and uninhibited, the precious mended toy a part of the game. What does this signify? Upon reflection, I explain to my children that somewhere in our distant ancestry perhaps via the Samuel line, music has come down to us, poetry, artistry and a sense of fun.

I have an old scrapbook full of witty verses and riddles coined by Israel’s great grandson, Edward Samuel. Edward was privileged as a young man to accompany his father’s esteemed friend and colleague Sir Moses Montefiore on his last journey to Jerusalem in 1874, shortly before coming to New Zealand to teach. We are told that as a teacher in a small rural community in New Zealand, Edward recounted these adventures to his young pupils. On warm afternoons, the crickets singing in the long grass of the paddocks outside and the main lessons of the day over, Edward transported the children to distant lands, almost beyond imagination for these bright young minds from farmstead and marae.

Again, through the glass, I see Israel Samuel turning in slow circles, his arms encompassing the child. We are all in that embrace: the artists and architects of beautiful synagogues, the selfless communal workers, the philanthropists and homegrown philosophers, the book-lovers and writers, the thinkers and teachers, the engineers and musicians, the bank clerks and soldiers, the intrepid merchants and traders, the tailors of Ludgate Hill, the miner – a long-lost elder brother – who got caught up in the Mexican revolution, the studious economists, the broker of Bury Street, St Mary Axe turned to more literary endeavours in Trinidad, and most significantly, the generations of caring, resourceful mothers, grandmothers and great- grandmothers. Perhaps the most revered, but least known, being the industrious wife of Israel Samuel, Susanna, who accompanied him to Brighton after their marriage at the Great Synagogue of London, 31 December 1766, 250 years ago.

Inside the slowly-dimming interior of the old building, somebody lights a candle and a face appears – a stranger, yet also somehow familiar. He appears to be looking directly at me, but like an old photograph, the eyes are looking beyond, and I am a mere shade in the outer dark beyond the candle light. I am driven back to the present. There is still a strong connection, I tell my sons, weaving back through time, lit candle to lit candle, summer grass, a shelf of old books, a set of tools, a child’s toy, leading all the way back to Brighton.

(For Adele who found Edward for me).

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