September 30

Originally the Bevis Mark synagogue

History (which is all-too-often incorrect) records that Antonio Fernandez Carvajal was the first Jew to settle in Britain after the expulsion of 1290. He came in 1632, fleeing from the destruction of the community in Rouen, and was technically an illegal immigrant for the next twenty-two years.

The official date of the return is the Whitehall Conference of 1655, the year in which Menasseh ben Israel came to London from Amsterdam to argue the case for Jewish admission. In fact, the Whitehall Conference was unproductive, and it was only in 1656 that the prohibition of Jews in England was repealed. On December 19th of that year, Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, approved an agreement between Carvajal and the wardens of St Katherine's Cree Church to lease 5 Cree Church Lane for use as a synagogue, for an initial period of twenty-one years, at £40 per annum; space was provided for a cemetery soon afterwards.

Unaware that it was Simchat Torah, the joyously partying festival that marks the end of Sukkot with the dancing of the Torah scrolls around the synagogue, Samuel Pepys and his wife attended a service at the Cree Church Lane Synagogue on October 14th 1663, and noted the occasion in his diary:
“After dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue… Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service… would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.
But I have come to this date to record the dedication of the oldest surviving synagogue in Britain, which is not the one on Cree Church Street, but the Bevis Mark synagogue in Heneage Lane (no one is quite sure when Mark became Marks, or why), just a few minutes walk further north, at the eastern corner of the City of London, just inside the ancient Roman wall, built to replace the by-then-inadequate Cree Church Lane synagogue in 1701.

My delvings in those various libraries, book and electronic, that are available, have thrown up a sixty-page pamphlet entitled "The Mitzvot of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, London - a guide for Parnasim", published "for the society of Heshaim at the University Press, Oxford, 1969", which is obviously a reprint of an original work, and the original, dating from the period of the community's revival, confirms its strength from its earliest days.

A.M. Hyamson's "Sephardim of England" (the same Albert Hyamson whose scholarship determined that the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor of London since its erection three quarters of a century after the Great Fire, was previously the site of another Jewish synagogue, destroyed in the fire), as well as E.N. Adler's "History of the Jews of London", have provided a list of fascinating names (as opposed to a fascinating list of names, which would not be the same thing) of the key figures of the resettlement.

Portrait of Rabbi Jacob Ben Aaron Sasportas
by Isaac Luttichuys
Jacob Sasportas (1610-1698), a North African Rabbi and passionate opponent of the Shabtai Zvi, who was sacked from his ministry in Tlemçen in 1647, arrived in London in 1664, but fled again the following year because of the plague, thereby avoiding becoming one of the significant number of Jews whose homes were destroyed in the Great Fire of the following year, and finished his life as Rabbi of Amsterdam. Sasportas is best remembered for his anti-Shabbatean polemic "Zizat Novel Zevi", a title which I take to be Arabic. A portrait of him in the Israel Museum in Jersualem shows a characteristically Rembrandt Jew with Fagin's beard and eyebrows, and a forehead as high as civilisation.

Next, Jacob Abendana, scion of an illustrious Dutch family, Marrano Jews with branches in the three principal Sephardi cities as far as Western Europe became concerned: Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. David Abendana, who died in 1625, had fled the Inquisition in Portugal. Isaac Abendana (1640-1710) taught Hebrew at both Oxford and Cambridge. Isaac Sardo Abendana traded diamonds in India. Jacob ben Joseph Abendana served as Rabbi in London, before moving back in the same capacity to Amsterdam. Was Abendana originally ibn Danan? And if so, are they the ancestors of the Danan family, now resident in Leeds, whose son Benjamin I taught in the early years of this century? Highly likely. It was a most distinguished pedigree, even before the London branch was established. Sa'adiah ben Maimon ibn Danan was a physician, poet and halachist in Granada and Oran in the 15th century. Samuel ibn Danan was Rabbi of Constantinople in the first half of the 16th century. Later the family produced the Av Beit Din of Rabat in Morocco (Solomon, 1848-1929), and the Chief Rabbi of Morocco, Solomon's son Saul, was the very last Chief Rabbi, the one who led his people to Israel after Independence in 1948.

The list contains the names Joshua da Silva, Solomon Ayllon and David Nieto, all worthy of biographising. Da Silva was not, alas, Antonio Jose da Silva, the Portuguese playwright who came from Rio de Janeiro to die a victim of the Lisbon auto-da-fés, but the Rabbi whose wife published his "Discursos Predycaves" after his death, in Amsterdam in 1688. I am only guessing, but I suspect that Rabbi da Silva was not one of the Jews who came to London at the time of the resettlement, but in fact the son of da Silvas who were already there, and who had been well established for more than a century already: the hidden Jews of London and Bristol whose story is told in more detail in my novel, "The Plausible Tragedie of Roderigo Lopes", scheduled for publication very soon.

Next, Solomon ben Jacob Ayllon, who was born in Salonika in 1655, moved to Zefat (Safed) in Israel in 1680, then came to London as "chacham" - the community's "wise man" - for eleven years between 1689 and 1700, before finishing his days - where else? - in Amsterdam. With him too the Shabbatean battle took centrestage, and he a centrist stance. Controversies are particularly recorded with Zevi Ashkenazi, likewise an erstwhile Salonikan, though in his case not by birth; Zevi also became an Amsterdam Rabbi later on, and it was probably the controversy with Ayllon that led him to leave Amsterdam and settle in Lvov, in 1714.

Finally, David Nieto (1654-1728): philosopher, Rabbi, dayan, physician, defender of the oral law, author of "Matteh Dan". This was the era of Spinoza, and Nieto was accused of being a disciple - it was Zevi Ashkenazi who publicly exonerated him, saving him thereby from excommunication.

I wish there were a clearer and more detailed map, but at least this one is of the right date. It reveals several strata of an extraordinary tel, for it is precisely the same area of London, just outside the city wall (just inside the ancient Roman wall, but just outside the Norman delineation of the City of London), on the eastern side which had provided habitation for Jewry in the Norman epoch, and which now did so again at the resettlement, and would a third time, when Jews were again permitted to settle in England, in the middle of the 19th century. My own family were among that latter group, arriving maternally at the turn of the 20th century and settling at the easternmost point, where London properly becomes Essex, my paternal grandfather establishing his dress factory and warehouse on Mansell Street and Petticoat Lane, my Uncle Max his clinic on Leadenhall Street, right there by the Aldgate, yards from Cree Church Lane and what by then was known as Bevis Marks, with a final "s". A thousand years of Jewish settlement in the same tiny quarter. A thousand years, except for the two separate three hundred year periods during which they were prohibited.

Bevis Marks may not be the oldest, but it is the oldest surviving and still in regular use. Once the Sephardim had begun to settle, Ashkenazim quickly followed, especially from Amsterdam and Hamburg. The first Rabbi, Judah Loeb ben Ephrayim Anschel ha-Kohen, moved on again to Rotterdam because he couldn't take the communal squabbling (plus ça change!). The first Ashkenazi synagogue was established alongside that first cemetery, in Alderney Road, by one Benjamin Levy, five years before Bevis Marks, in 1696; but it is long vanished. Sandy's Row Synagogue in Spitalfields is London's oldest surviving and still-in-use Ashkenazi Synagogue; founded in 1854 on what had previously been the site of a French Huguenot Church, itself built in 1766.

A fuller account of the (extremely bizarre) events leading to the resettlement in 1656 is told in my story "The Hidden Jews of Cartagena", scheduled to be published in "Travels In Familiar Lands" in 2018. And the tale of another Carvajal, who may or may not be related to this one, coming soon on December 8.

Amber pages

Hans Geiger, German physicist, born today in 1882; the co-inventor of the Geiger counter, but its name only remembers his half; the Sherpa Tenzing on this occasion was Walther Mueller...

Truman Streckfus Persons, born today in 1924. Never heard of him? That was how the young Harper Lee knew him, the teenager she renamed Dill in "To Kill A Mockingbird". Truman Capote when he started penning his own books. I wonder if "Persons" was originally a Portuguese name, like Merrick and Reis and...

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust witness, born today in 1928

Today in 1946, the verdicts of the Nuremberg trials were announced, and three years to the day later the Berlin Airlift ended

Independence Day in Botswana, formerly Bechuanaland, today in 1966 - click here.

And how odd a coincidence, that today should begin with the Geiger Counter and end with the Richter Scale, Charles Francis Richter, who developed it, died today in 1985

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved

The Argaman Press

No comments:

Post a Comment