In 1839, two young English sisters, Marion and Celia Moss, published a collection of poems whose title boldly identified them as belonging to “the Hebrew nation.” Just nine years prior, a bill intended to give British Jews nearly equal rights to their Gentile compatriots was defeated in parliament. One of the Mosses’ poems memorializes the events in York in the year 1190, when the local Jewish community took refuge in a castle and then committed mass suicide rather than face slaughter or conversion at the hands of a Christian mob. Lauding these Jews’ courage, the poem invokes the Maccabean revolt:
When the Israelites echoed the Maccabees’ cry
As they raised the Asmonean banner on high,
They stayed not to think upon danger or death,
But glorified God with their last fainting breath . . .
Karen Weisman comments:
One of the striking aspects of this poem is that the Moss sisters represent the Jews as embodying England’s most authentic values. What we have in [the first part of the poem] is a description of the English “stately hall” decorated with the proud reminders of English military might, “the sword and buckler on the wall/ Won from the foe in tented field.” But in the hall there are no warriors; the image of the brave English of famed and just valor has given way to the bloodthirsty English swarm, and it is the courageous Jews who are sheltering in the halls of the castle—the very symbol of English stability. With their “jetty” (black) hair and eyes, they don’t look like Englishmen—but they embody genuine English fortitude. . . .
The Jews who die at York Castle will be leaving “in their country’s annals a name/ That will ne’er be erased from the records of fame.” And their country is England. This is a rather remarkable turning of the tables, and a splendid irony: this poem about the moment when Jews were victimized as outcasts implicitly becomes a poem about their rightful belonging to a nation whose glorious history they presume to define.