Montefiore’s Mill

Montefiore's Windmill-homepage

It was an act of Jerusalem serendipity that restored the city’s Montefiore windmill this summer. Built in 1855  by Moses Montefiore, the English banker and philanthropist who financed the establishment of Yemin Moshe — the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City — the cupola-capped, English mill was styled after the mills in his Ramsgate, Kent hometown. He wanted the downtrodden, 19th century Jerusalem residents to grind their own flour, but it closed after only 18 years of operation.

More than 100 years later, a Dutch tourist who travels regularly to Israel, a man with a passion for windmills, was bothered that the mill wasn’t operative and enjoined his friends from Christians for Israel in Holland to help fund its restoration. They raised $1 million, tells Alan Freeman, vice president of the Jerusalem Foundation, which organized the project, and the foundation then raised another five million shekels with the help of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Tourism and the Jerusalem Municipality.

“He’s a windmill freak,” said Freeman. “But he got us going.”

Freeman and his team located the “only person alive” who understands English windmills, an English wind generator architect who was reluctant to rebuild the mill himself, and contracted a Dutch windmill firm to help him out. The master craftsmen carried out most of the work in a small workshop in Holland, later reassembling the mill in its entirety back in Jerusalem, from its four-floor interior to the exterior cupola, walls and blades.

While the site of the windmill has been popular for years, a breezy overlook for those seeking a view of the Old City walls or for bridal couples on their wedding day photo shoot, what has irked its supporters is the rumor that the mill closed for lack of sufficient winds.

“That’s a bubbe meise,” says Professor Shaul Sapir, a geographer and historian at Hebrew University. “The antique wind generator was built in just the right spot, above Jerusalem’s water source and on a hill that gets great wind.”

The real story is that the English-built mill broke down, but the parts, available only in England, were too expensive to replace. Montefiore, it appears, hadn’t made any plans for maintaining the mill.

His plan was to style a Jerusalem neighborhood after his own Kentish community, and help the fledgling Jerusalemites become self-supporting, making their own flour rather than buying it from their Arab neighbors. Like many foreigners, he wanted to transplant his world in Israel, down to his family crest seen on the carriage that is parked next to the mill, with the word Jerusalem written in Hebrew over a lion of Judah. The elder Montefiore was a complicated guy, according to his nephew, Simon Sebag Montefiore, a great-great nephew and well-known writer who recently published, “Jerusalem, The Biography,” which spans 3,000 years of the city’s history.

In talks about his 620-page tome, Sebag Montefiore has mentioned that his uncle was a hero to some of his descendants, while others weren’t in favor of his enthusiastic Zionism. He was also a typical Victorian who led a secret life, which included fathering a child out of wedlock when he was well into his 80s.

Megalomaniac or mill enthusiast, it was his passion for mills that brought one to Jerusalem, soon to be fully restored to its grinding power. For now, only the exterior of the mill is viewable to the public and was inaugurated in late August. By this spring, the four floors of the mill will be viewable to the public, including the flour floor where the wheat was stored; the millstone level where flour was ground; the grain collection floor and the very top of the windmill, where the dust from the mill was gathered.

It’s an apt symbol for the city, added Professor Sapir. “Im ein kemach, ein Torah,” he said, quoting the saying from Ethics of the Fathers that if there is no flour, there is no Torah, referring to the need for a strong economic base in order to create a learning, growing community. “He wanted to break the monopoly on flour, and get the Jews to work, in order to create a stronger Jerusalem.”