History of the Great Synagogue
WHEN, as a result of the favour of Oliver Cromwell and the exertions of Menasseh ben Israel, Jews settled again in London in the seventeenth century after an interval of some four hundred years, what is known as the Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) rite was followed in the Synagogue they established. This was natural: for the overwhelming majority of its members were former Marranos who had escaped from the clutches of the Inquisition in the Peninsula, or else their immediate descendants. From the beginning, though, the settlement was leavened by a few representatives of the Germano-Polish group, generally known (after the term applied by the Jews of the Middle Ages to Germany) as Ashkenazim. In essentials, of course, there was little difference between them and their coreligionists, though their immediate antecedents were distinctive, their standard of general culture lower, their economic occupations humbler, and their synagogal tradition (almost identical, in fact, with that followed by the mediaeval Anglo-Jewish community, before the expulsion of 1290) slightly different. It may be noted that the most stalwart of those few Jews who penetrated into England in the 'Middle Period" - the mining-engineer Joachim Gaunse who was expelled for his outspoken religious views, and the Jacob Barnett who fled from Oxford rather than submit to baptism - both happened to be Ashkenazim.
It was out of the question for this element to be excluded on logical grounds, once their Sephardi coreligionists, outwardly more engaging, had obtained a foothold in England. There is indeed evidence that they constituted a recognisable group at a comparatively early date. The late Lucien Wolf used to speak of a contemporary account of the arrival in London in 1648 or 1649 of a whole shipload of Polish Jewish refugees from the recent massacres at the hands of the Cossacks. Early in the reign of Charles II they may have had a private prayer-meeting of their own. In fact, in an informer's list of 1660 we read of a subordinate "sinagoga" in Great St. Helen's, in the House of "Sin. David the Priest", in addition to the official place of worship. If this really existed (probably, it is simply the result of a confusion, or a figment of the informer's muddled imagination) its attendants might have included "Sin. David Mier", of Leadenhall Street: "Sin. Mordihay" of Creechurch Lane: "Sin. Solomon Frankes" (who notwithstanding appearances may not be identical with the Sephardi apostate, Solomon Franco), of Fenchurch Street: and "Severall Jewes" (not "Spaniards" - that word is erased) in Leadenhall Street. This hypothetical synagogue could not have existed for long, if it existed at all, for there is no further mention of it. So far as other sources show, there was in London at this period only one Jewish place of worship - that following the Sephardi ritual, in Creechurch Lane: and only one Jewish burial place - that of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Mile End. Yet there is ample evidence that this community was already diluted by an ample sprinkling of what it considered the inferior tribe. A number of unmistakable names (possibly in some cases those of visitors who had died during their stay in England) may be traced in the oldest registers of the "House of Life" - e.g. Isaac Yafe (1660): Rabbi Raphael ben R. Solomon Zalman (a Lithuanian, perhaps from Narol, 1684): Abraham "Ashkenazi" (1678): Joseph "Ashkenazi" and another Ashkenazi (1689): a certain Israel (or perhaps Isaac) Levy: and a few others. We find more than one tudesco craftsman employed by the congregation at the time of the reconstruction of their Synagogue in 1675 - Moses ben David, David Fels, Jacob Tudesco and Joseph Tudesco (perhaps identical with Joseph "Ashkenazi "); and some of these had presumably been in London already for a while. More than one of the communal employees was of Ashkenazi origin. The very Beadle, 1667-1701, was Samuel Levy, of Cracow, popularly known as "Ribbi Semuel": and in the last quarter of the century, when he grew old, he was assisted by another tudesco, quaintly known as Isaac Purim. Yet another was Jacob Keyser, who managed the congregational butcher's shop, probably overlapping with the subsequent Shochet, Baruch Benedict. The first recorded Keeper of the Burial Ground was Mordecai Gimpel (Gümpel), who on his death in 1695 was succeeded by his widow Sarah, buried there at his side twenty-six years later.
In the Minutes and Accompts of the congregation, entries may be found relating to other persons with names indicating German or Eastern European provenance, who, however, contributed to its funds instead of drawing upon them. They included Samuel Forst, Hayim Forst, Hayim Brosa and Jochanan Luria (1671): - bar Levi and - bar Nathan (1674): Levy Nathan (1675): Simon Levy (1676): Samuel Heilbuth (1676) and Jacob Adolphus (1685: we shall meet these two again). Another tudesco, Isaac ben Abraham, who had since migrated to Hamburg, left the Synagogue a legacy of £30 on his death about 1677. The secular records enable us to expand our list. As early as 1664, a well-to-do merchant named Jacob Levy (Luevy) was resident in the parish of St. Katherine Coleman; in 1665 he had paid the standard fine of £5 to avoid serving as Collector for the Poor and Sidesman when elected to that office1; and in the following year he made the Parish a voluntary gift of £3 for charity. An Aaron Moses died in London in 1675. Among the persons endenizened in 1687 were Isaac Abraham and Jone Mathias, with the latter's wife Judith and son Isaac.2 There was a certain Abraham Lyon living in the parish of St. Katherine Creechurch in 1681, whose rates were reduced owing to his poverty. An Ashkenazi too, probably, was Aaron the Jew, who in the following year had five shillings given him by that Parish "in Charity towards his reliefe" - an unexpected demonstration of tolerance, unless he was a convert to Christianity. London apostates who wrote accounts of their conversion in order to impress the public included several Ashkenazim; and a Jew named Hayman Isaac (Hayim ben Isaac), who was baptised at Nantes many years later, claimed that he had been born in London in 1682. Not all, perhaps, of the persons mentioned above were permanent residents in London; one or two, notwithstanding their names, may in fact have been Sephardim, or were not Jews at all. Yet the list is lengthy enough to make it clear that the background of Jewish life in London, in the generation succeeding the Resettlement, was not (as is generally believed) exclusively that of Marranos escaped from the Peninsula and their offspring.
A number of those whose names have been recorded were obviously very small fry - communal dependants, employees, even mendicants. Yet there were in the group a few persons of different calibre, with one of whom the story of the establishment of the Ashkenazi community in London is associated in an especial degree, and who may in fact be reckoned its founder. The most prominent and most numerous Ashkenazi community of Western Europe at this time (with the possible exception only of Amsterdam) was that of Hamburg, with its aristocracy of wealthy gem-merchants. Among its outstanding members was a certain Moses Levy, a merchant of considerable means, who numbered among his connexions some of the best-known Rabbis of the age. His family included a son named Benjamin, who, accompanied by his brother Seligman or Solomon, went over to London about the year 1669 to push his fortunes. About the same time his uncle, Michael or Meir Levy, also settled here - a man apparently of considerable public experience and linguistic ability, who was repeatedly employed by the Sephardi community as their "solicitor" to present their case before the authorities when the necessity arose.
It is clear that Benjamin Levy arrived with a certain amount of capital, which rapidly increased. (When in April 1693 he was chosen Overseer of the Poor in the parish of St. Katherine Coleman, he was "discharged" from the performance of that office on the payment of the maximum fine of £12.) He had not been long in England when he was admitted to the Royal Exchange. When in 1697 this institution was reorganised and the number of brokers restricted to 124 all told, he was one of the twelve Jews licensed to practise, only one other Ashkenazi being included in the list. A Frankfort Jew who had been in London recounted the episode with a little pardonable exaggeration to Johann Jakob Schudt, the Christian chronicler of Ghetto life in Germany, who in his Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten told how Benjamin Levy was sworn Broker to the British sovereign, and as such always wore the royal arms on his breast - a reference, presumably, to the broker's medal with which the successful candidates had to provide themselves.
Levy (who was endenizened3 in March 1688/9 together with his brother Seligman) had a finger in many commercial pies. He was an original Subscriber to the Bank of England, and the only Jew on the list. It was said that he was responsible for procuring the new Charter for the East India Company in 1698, with the result that his name was the second on its registers. In any case, he was a considerable shareholder in that institution, £1,000-worth of stock being purchased from him in 1693, at 95 per cent, by the Board of Governors: and in the public subscription list of 1698 we find the names of his kinsfolk Mary, Margaret and Michael Levy. In 1698 the Treasurer of the Navy was instructed to pay him a sum of over £6,000 as discount on a draft for £85,885. He was a member of the Royal African Company from 1688, and a considerable shareholder in the Million Bank, founded in 1695. There are records too of his activity in almost every branch of overseas trade: and his name is met with, as that of a merchant of fist importance, in Home Office Papers, Petitions and Warrants, in the Patent Rolls, in the Treasury and Colonial Papers, and in other official records. In 1703 we find him (unless, as is not impossible, a transatlantic name-sake is here in question) twelfth in order among the thirty-two proprietors who surrendered to the Crown the right of government in the Eastern Division of the Province of New Jersey in the American plantations. Later in the same year, his name was included among the signatories to a petition requesting authority to nominate the first Governor of the Colony.
On his arrival in London Benjamin Levy worshipped as a matter of course at the synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Creechurch Lane, established in 1657, where by coincidence there were at this time two other worthies who bore the same name. One was a scholarly person, Shochet to the congregation from 1664 and its Hazan from 1667, and possibly its secretary as well - a devoted adherent of the pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, who received the first reports from abroad regarding the meteoric career of that strange portent. In order to fulfil his communal functions satisfactorily, he must have been a Sephardi - probably Levantine - in origin. Another namesake, Benjamin Levy the elder (el viejo), Asquenazi, was buried in the congregational cemetery in 1695: had he been identical with the Hazan and Shochet, a devoted communal servant over a number of years, the fact could hardly have escaped mention in the official record. It is generally easy to distinguish the tudesco magnate from his homonyms. In view of his financial position, it was natural to admit him a yahid, or full member, of the congregation - an honour conferred on barely any other Ashkenazi at this time. His name first appears in the accounts, for a trifling sum, in 1669. In succeeding years, his contributions rapidly increased. When the new Ascamot, or Regulations, were drawn up in 1677, his name figured fourteenth in the list of signatories. He had contributed, though modestly, to the synagogue reconstruction fund in 1674. In the previous year, he had been chosen by lot to act as Hatan Torah on the Rejoicing of the Law, and he signalised the occasion by presenting the congregation with a silver cup (unless, in this case, the other Benjamin Levy, the Hazan, is in question). When the new Synagogue was projected, in 1700, he made a donation of £35 to the building fund--the largest individual sum recorded in the first list, subsequently supplemented moreover by smaller amounts.
Though a person of this calibre was treated (as he always is) with proper deference, the Spanish and Portuguese community was nervous (for reasons that can be understood readily enough) at the prospect of an influx of poor Jews from overseas, whose number would tax their slender resources, attract public attention, and possibly undermine the grudging toleration that they had won in the country. At intervals, therefore, they took steps, sometimes in conjunction with the City authorities, to check the tide of immigration of persons unable to support themselves: thus, on May 25th 1669, Michael Levy had been empowered to lodge a complaint with the Lord Mayor regarding the number of foreign mendicants besetting the synagogue, and was charged to make a report on them. Apart from these considerations, some nervousness was felt lest the newcomers should change the character of the congregation and swamp the distinctive Spanish and Portuguese tradition. Drastic steps were taken to cope with this eventuality. In the year 5439 (1678/9)~ a resolution was passed to the effect that no tudesco should be allowed to hold office in Synagogue, to vote at meetings, to be called to the Law, to receive any congregational honour, or even pay imposts or make offerings, without special permission. An exception was made to this intolerant rule in favour of only two persons other than the devoted Shamash, Samuel Levy of Cracow - Benjamin Levy and his uncle Michael; for they already enjoyed a position of privilege. It was a harsh restriction, and the fact was soon realised: towards the close of 1682 it was modified, the presiding Parnas being empowered to call Ashkenazim to the reading of the Law at his discretion (with the exception for the next twelve months of Samuel Heilbuth, who had for some reason or other embroiled himself with the authorities), as well as to accept their impostas. One may conjecture that this was due to the visit of Rabbi Raphael ben Solomon Zalman who (as we have seen) was in England and died there about this time, and may have pointed out that the restriction was against Jewish law. More defensible, though hardly genial, was another regulation passed in the Spring of the same year, that foreign tudescos who came to England to beg charity should not receive more than five shillings apiece and should be shipped back immediately to Amsterdam.
The congregational accounts of 5440 (1679/80) reflect the manner in which this was carried into effect, a special section being devoted to "expenses for sending poor tudescos away":--
Not long after, the situation was changed by the process of external policy. The stirring events of English history in 1688/9 proved to be of cardinal importance in the record of the Anglo-Jewish community. The Glorious Revolution brought under one rule England and Holland, with the famous and numerous Jewish community of its chief city, Amsterdam. Relations between the two countries became extremely close; communications improved; and there was a considerable development of reciprocal trade, reflected in a constant coming and going of merchants. Immigration began on a comparatively large scale, and the Jews naturally followed the general tendency. The Sephardi community in London was augmented to such an extent that, before long, arrangements had to be made for the construction of a new Synagogue - the stately edifice in Bevis Marks still in use, to which Benjamin Levy subscribed so handsomely. It is probable that Ashkenazim were represented among the immigrants to an even greater extent: and, in view of the close relations between Amsterdam and Hamburg, that city too began to send its scions to England in increasing number to trade and to seek their fortune. There is extant a list of passes for leaving England in 1689 and the succeeding years, and this includes numerous unmistakably German-Jewish names, whether of visitors or of permanent residents who went abroad on business. It is perhaps significant that the first on the list is a certain Rabbi, Isaac Cohen Zedek, who received a pass on October 14th, 1689, "to go beyond the seas."
Thus, at the beginning of the reign of William III, there was established in London a not inconsiderable Ashkenazi community.4 Doubtless, its members met together for Divine service from time to time in accordance with their own traditions. It is possible indeed that the Rabbi just referred to may have come over in connexion with this, at the season of the greatest solemnity in the Jewish religious calendar: for the New Year had fallen on September 5th, and Tabernacles thus ended a couple of weeks before he received his pass to leave the country.
Numbers were now sufficient to require something more than a sporadic prayer-meeting in a private house. The next stage was the organisation of a proper community.
1 This was a usual method employed for the raising of revenue in the City Parishes, and it would indeed have been inequitable had Jewish householders. escaped the burden which fell on their neighbours. Some. however, elected to serve; the lists of Churchwardens on the walls of the Church of All Hallows Barking, include Henry Moses (1768) and Nathan Solomon (1772-3).
2 The name "Meres", often stated to be in this list, should read "Morel"
3 i.e. naturalised, in a slightly modified form.
4 "J. S.", who edited an edition of Josephus ben Gorion's Wonderful History of the Jews, published in London in 1699, refers in his dedication to "the Jews (whereof there are Swarms at present in this City)".
Great Synagogue home page on JCR-UK
This website is
owned by JewishGen and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. All
material found herein is owned by or licensed to us. You may view, download, and
print material from this site only for your own personal use. You may not post
material from this site on another website without our consent. You may not
transmit or distribute material from this website to others. You may not use
this website or information found at this site for any commercial purpose.
Copyright © 2002 - 2015 JCR-UK. All Rights Reserved