Jewish London

Written by:
Rachel Kaplan
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A Social History of the Jewish East End in London, 1914-1939

(1992), J. Green

It is presumed that Jews have been part of the fabric of London since the Roman invasion in 41 A.D. although the first documentary evidence of their presence emerges only in 1128, where there is the first mention of a Jewish quarter in the city. From the time of their arrival in the British capital, they suffered from prejudice and brutality. As was the case with so many other Jewish communities in Europe, they were not allowed to participate in ordinary commerce or in the trades guilds; instead, they were allowed to lend money, an activity from which Christian merchants were barred.

Not only were Jews blamed and hated for the business that had been imposed upon them by the civic authorities, but they also were unjustly segregated and condemned for their activities and customs. The noble families who were indebted to them obliged them to wear a sign of the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were supposed to have been miraculously inscribed–a precursor of the yellow stars of 20th century persection. In 1271, hundreds of Jews were hanged on suspicion of adulterating the coinage. Twelve years later the community was expelled altogether, after the arrival of the Italian and French bankers from the Continent. It was the first wholesale expulsion of Jews in history. It would be another 350 years before Jews were allowed to return officially to London and the British Isles, through the aegis of Oliver Cromwell, who saw the necessity of Jewish financiers in the English economy.

Today, happily, Jewish life and heritage, is enjoying a Renaissance of a sorts in London, and thanks to events such as Jewish Heritage Day (held annually the first week in September), Jews from all over the world are invited to explore the city’s Jewish sites and landmarks, of which there are many. The best place to begin is in the old heart of London, known as The City; the Old Jewry area is where the earliest community once lived. There, the hauntingly beautiful Bevis Marks Synagogue, which was built in 1701 and modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. Built inside a courtyard, at a time when synagogues were not permitted on public streets, it is open for visits and special occasions.

Chancery Lane is the site of the Domus Conversorum (the House of Conversion) now the Public Record Office, where Jews converted to Christianity after the expulsion. Some of these so-called “closet Jews” included the physician Samson de Mirabeau, who cared for the wife of London’s Mayor Richard Wittington in 1409 and Elias Ben Sabbetai, who came from Bologna in 1410 to attend to the health of Henry IV.That Shakespeare wrote of the Jewish moneylender Shylock may be because Elizabeth I, his patron, allowed Jews to flourish, and employed one of them, Roderigo Lopez, as her personal physician.

You can still find the house where Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once lived, as well as the Rothschild headquarters on St. Swithen’s Lane, where the international price of gold is set daily. Although it is well-guarded, the Rothschild building boasts a mezuzah on its main doorway. In its lobby, next to the family portraits, hangs a striking woven tapestry of Moses in the desert striking the rock for water.

The City of London adjoins the East End, which is gradually being gentrified with fashionable restaurants and avant-garde art galleries. The hub of immigrant Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is bounded on the south by the Thames River, on the north by Bethnal Green Road, and in the west by Aldgate. A walking tour can lead to four active synagogues, and Petticoat Lane, which on Sundays, is one of the liveliest outdoor markets in the city. Although some Jews still live in the narrow streets of Spitalsfield (once a leading textile center), most have moved to North and Northwest London including Golders Green, Hampstead Garden, Newbury Park and Redbridge. (Today, Great Britain’s Jewish population hovers at around 350,000, and at least half reside in the London area.)

The elegantly refurbished Jewish Museum in Camden Town has a history gallery that traces the community’s story from the Norman Conquest. On view are the oldest English Hanukkah lamp, a medieval tax receipt consisting of notched wooden tallies to show the amount received, as well as Jewish bronze coins from 103 to 76 B.C. The museum also has a late 13th century charter in Latin noting a small land grant forbidding its transfer to monks or Jews and small porcelain figurines of early 19th century professions such as a moneychanger. The collection’s finest ritual object is an elaborately carved 16th century Venetian Ark, found in 1932 in Chillingham Castle, Northumbria, where it was being used as a servant’s wardrobe.

Also of interest is the Freud Museum in Hampstead, Sigmund Freud’s last residence prior to his death in September, 1939. Forced to flee Vienna with his family after the Nazis had arrested his daughter Anna for questioning, Freud was able to emigrate with all his possessions, including his famous analysand couch and over 3,000 ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Chinese figurines, all of which are now displayed in the museum.

Perhaps the most poignant exhibition London has on offer is the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition, which was four years in the making. It uses historical material to document the Nazis persecution of the Jews prior to and during World War II. The display brings to this country for the first time rare and important objects from former concentration camp museums in Germany, Poland and the Ukraine, including a funeral cart from the Warsaw Ghetto, a deportation rail car donated by the Belgian government railways, and a wagon heaved by slave laborers. Toys, diaries, mementoes, and filmed testimonies from 18 survivors help to illuminate one of the most tragic events in history, thus making for a profoundly moving exhibition.

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