A lasting legacy of the Jews

IAN COLLINS To mark 350 years of Jewish communities in Britain, Ian Collins hails a brilliant legacy in London.


I love to visit my local synagogue - the oldest in Britain and the place where Tony Blair recently celebrated the 350th anniversary of our Jewish community. It also happens to be one of London's most beautiful buildings.

The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, off the City street called Bevis Marks, was completed in 1701. Queen Anne paid for a beam and the (Quaker) builder refunded his fee.

Magnificent candelabra continue to light the galleried temple, and on high holy days elders still wear the antique garb noted by Samuel Pepys (who mistook one joyful ceremony he witnessed for mass drunkenness).

These hallowed walls hold a sense of ancient and abiding spirituality, and of culture overcoming calamity - as you can see for yourself on Sunday, September 17, when Bevis Marks welcomes visitors as part of the annual Open London weekend.

It's a miracle this haven wasn't blitzed along with most City churches and other synagogues serving a teeming refugee community in the nearby East End, whose last vestiges have dispersed in the last couple of decades - to Golders Green, Tel Aviv, New York, or the sprawling cemetery in Willesden.

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Shops, schools, markets, music halls and factories are now demolished or converted. A Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor is now a block of fabulously expensive flats.

A stone's throw from Liverpool Street station, one former Spitalfields synagogue is a mosque and another (in Princelet Street) a museum to migration. Today this historic district is the heart of Bengali Banglatown.

Bloom's restaurant has withered, but there is a fine, if costly, kosher restaurant beside Bevis Marks which we joke deserves a Michelin star of David.

The best jokes are Jewish. My electrician, from Hackney, says his wife's Jewish family “always put the bacon at the back of the fridge on Saturdays so God couldn't see it”.

And then he adds this one: “A man asked his son what he wanted for his Barmitzvah. The son replied, 'Dad, I want a Porsche.'

“The baffled father asked an Orthodox rabbi what this could possibly mean. 'Your boy wants a Porsche? I can't understand it,' the learned old rabbi replied.

“So the man then asked a Conservative rabbi to explain his son's request. But this teacher was similarly nonplussed.

“Then he consulted a Liberal rabbi, who said: 'Of course your son wants a Porsche! But what's a Barmitzvah?'”

Jokes are part of the Jewish code of survival. Another is a keen awareness of history.

In Berlin a few years back, an old cantor, whose voice had reduced me to tears in a Conservative synagogue linked to the one in Belsize Square, died peacefully at the end of a triumphant life.

As a teenager he had been deported to Auschwitz from Salonika, where he had been subjected to hideous medical experiments after the rest of his family was gassed. Among clan possessions lost forever in 1943 was an ornate key… to their house in Spain from which they had been expelled in 1492. Imagine.

Jews have a far longer history in Britain than a mere 350 years, having arrived with William the Conqueror. But after persecution - with the mass suicide of a besieged community in York, a pogrom in Bury St Edmunds, and a founding legend of Norwich Cathedral revisiting the old libel of Jews murdering Christian children to make their Sabbath bread - expulsion followed in 1290. Oliver Cromwell allowed a return in 1656.

With a UK population down to 280,000, and still falling amid the threats of Islamic fundamentalism, Jews have enhanced Britain out of all proportion to their modest numbers. Maybe insecurity fuels creativity.

If there is such a thing as a Jewish global conspiracy, as anti-Semites insist, then it targets other Jews - Liberal v Orthodox, Sephardi v Ashkenazi (the Judaic tradition of Spain versus that of central and eastern Europe), conservatives v radicals. Rabbis are taught to row.

Even the blessed Hugo Gryn - late Liberal counterpart to the Orthodox Chief Rabbi - chose TWO synagogues as his Desert Island Discs luxury item (the one he'd go to, and the one he wouldn't go to).

And lo! The saga of the Jews in Britain is now being told in two London museums.

The main one - the Jewish Museum in Camden Town - traces a religious history and the development of Jewish life in Britain from medieval to modern times, while the Jewish Museum in Finchley explores Jewish settlement in London. Art and artefacts are spread between these two sites.

But the story has now been gathered into one beautiful new book: Treasures of Jewish Heritage: The Jewish Museum, London (Scala, £14.95). Here you see how the grinding poverty of migrants from eastern European shetls contrasted with the fantastic wealth of certain merchant and banker families, like the Montefiores or the Rothschilds.

Lionel de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London in 1847, but was unable to take his seat as he would not make the statutory declaration “on the true faith of a Christian”. He had to be returned four times before the oath was amended.

Jews were barred from taking Oxford degrees until 1871 - 15 years after a similar ban was lifted at Cambridge. That year George Jessel became the first Jew to hold ministerial office when appointed Solicitor-General.

In 1874 wily Benjamin Disraeli - who famously flirted with Queen Victoria - became Tory Prime Minister. Although circumcised in Bevis Marks as a baby, he had been taken out of the faith as a child by his father who was protesting over a fine for refusing the role of synagogue elder. The convert would never have been acceptable to the Conservative Party had he not kept with Christianity.

Jews were prominent in the founding of the Labour Party and in the trade union movement (just as their sorely oppressed kith and kin in Tsarist Russia formed a majority of the Bolsheviks until the purges of Stalin).

Tory anti-Semitism - mirroring that of the landed classes - only really died out under Margaret Thatcher, with her philosophical mentor Keith Joseph, her Chancellor Nigel Lawson and her Jewish voters in Finchley.

Although an atheist, I have a sealed mezuzah capsule on my front door containing the traditional blessing of certain Biblical texts.

Noticing what I take as a badge of honour, a Jewish friend said he'd always wondered what the texts actually said, so he had broken his open and had read the following message: “Help! I'm a prisoner in a mezuzah factory!”

t The Jewish Museum, 129-131 Albert Street, Camden (020 7284 1997) is open Monday to Thursday, 10am to 4pm, and Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Admission £3.50, concessions from £1.50. Tube: Camden Town. The Jewish Museum in the Sternberg Centre, 80 East End Road, Finchley (020 8349 1143) is open Monday to Thursday, 10.30am to 5pm, and Sunday 10.30am to 4.30pm (no Sunday opening in August). Admission £2, concessions £1. Tube: Finchley Central.