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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XII

THE NEW GREAT SYNAGOGUE, 1790

 

THAT munificent family which had been so closely associated with the origins of the Great Synagogue was still playing an important role in its history, though standing somewhat aloof from the ordinary round of communal life. Benjamin Levy, who may be reckoned the father of the congregation, left behind him three children: Menahem, Abigail, and Elias. The first-named, the son of his former marriage, was eighteen years of age at the time of his father's death, and inherited a comfortable fortune. As he was still a minor he could not take over his father's place and medal as one of the twelve licensed Jew Brokers, which passed to one Aaron Alvares. When Menahem came of age in 1707, he tried in vain to persuade his father's kinsman and associate Moses Hart (who had been admitted to 'Change in 1704, in succession to David de Faro) to retire in his favour, and went so far as to assert that he had paid him £1,000 on this understanding. The case gave rise to prolonged litigation and an enquiry by the Court of Aldermen, with the result that Moses was exonerated. In the following year Menahem Levy died, unmarried (October 14th, 1708).

His half-sister Abigail, or Golly, daughter of Benjamin Levy's second marriage with Hitchele Heilbuth (whose jewellery, including a superb diamond necklace, she inherited under her father's will) was destined to a more useful career. She had been betrothed to a certain Moses ben Samuel, presumably Samuel Heilbuth's son, but the two proved incompatible and in 1704, at the time of her father's death, the arrangement was cancelled by a formal Bill of Divorce (the record of this domestic misadventure has been preserved in a manuscript which somehow found its way to the Orient, and then back to England). Later on, she married Moses Adolphus, £10 being deducted from her wedding-portion to dower two poor maidens belonging to the Synagogue, in accordance with the terms of her father's will. (The bridegroom was a member of a distinguished Anglo-American Jewish family which is always referred to in the synagogal records by its mysterious alternative name "Bira"). They had six sons, all of whom (except one, who was feeble-minded) became prosperous. The most active in communal life was Michael or Meir (d. 1785), one of the original Deputies appointed by the Great Synagogue in 1760, who married Rachel, daughter of Moses Hart. But more prominent in the eyes of the outside world was his brother Joy, who studied medicine at Leyden (English universities, like most others, not being open to Jews) and graduated in 1739 after presenting a thesis on the nature of pain. Subsequently, he was in practice at Cleves, and was for a time body-physician to Frederick the Great. After a time he returned to London, where his affluent brother Michael could afford to relieve him of material anxiety. Here he published in 1763 his clever but unedifying work, Histoire des Diables Modernes, which was very popular at the time and ran through several editions: and he wrote some other books as well. To compensate for his brother's sterile marriage, he himself had no fewer than twenty-three children. All were daughters, except one, Jacob, who was rewarded by being adopted by his wealthy but childless uncle. The age of assimilation had already begun, and Jacob Adolphus displeased his benefactor by marrying a non-Jewess, Mary Hughes. Later on, the old man became reconciled and adopted his nephew's son, John Adolphus (afterwards Sir John), who became a distinguished lawyer and is famous for his defence of the Cato Street conspirators in 1820. But he could not escape his origin; and when in the following year he defended the Life Guard officers who were tried for the murder of two men killed in a riot during the funeral procession of Queen Caroline, a caricaturist pungently depicted him with a brief bearing the words: "Jew v. Jury". He was the father of an equally illustrious son - John Leycester Adolphus, the famous critic, who was the first person to demonstrate the authorship of the Waverley Novels. To another branch of the family, which remained inside the community, belonged Major-General Sir Jacob Adolphus (c. 1770-1842) Inspector General of Hospitals - one of the first English Jews to attain high rank in the Army.

More important however from our point of view was Golly Levy's brother Elias, a mere child when he was left an orphan in 1704.1 In his will, his father expressed the desire that this boy should be brought up "in some profession in the Jewish learning, whether as a Rabby or a Physitian" (the equation of the two is interesting). He was to live with his great-uncle, Jacob Heilbuth, with his own servant to attend on him, and a certain Rabbi Moses was to be paid £25 annually for four years for teaching him; subsequently he was to be sent abroad to complete his education. Matters did not work out quite as Benjamin Levy had planned: but Elias had a thorough Jewish education, ultimately under the direction of one Adolph Cohen, whom he afterwards refers to as "my old schoolmaster".2 Nevertheless, he does not seem to have been of a scholarly turn of mind. A practical man, he was attracted by the bright eyes and brighter prospects of his cousin, Judith Hart, Moses's second daughter. It was a brilliant match; for her father, himself very wealthy, is said to have invested Elias's property in South Sea Stock, and to have sold out before the crash at a profit of 600 per cent. From both sides, therefore, the match was a desirable one, and it was carried into effect in 1727.

After their marriage, Elias and "Judy" Levy went into housekeeping, first in Bishopgate Street and then in a mansion in Wellclose Square which was afterwards occupied by the Baal Shem of London, "Dr." Hayim de Falk. Elias Levy never became a broker on the Exchange, as his father had been, but is described as "merchant". It is reported that his wife, who had an acute business-sense, aided him materially in his business in the Lisbon diamond trade, and managed to increase her already handsome fortune substantially by investing in privateering shares during the Spanish and French wars. On the death of her brother Hyman in 1738, she and her surviving sister were left the principal heirs of their father's great fortune.

As in duty bound, Elias Levy took an active part in the affairs of the Great Synagogue. He was the earliest Warden appointed when that office was established in 1748/9: he was one of the Trustees for the extension of the burial-ground acquired at the same period; and there is still in use in the Synagogue a pair of silver finials ("bells") for the Scroll of the Law, made in London and presented by him in 1732.3 In the charitable world of the metropolis, too, he was active, being a Governor of the Foundling Hospital and of the London Infirmary. He died comparatively young, on January 14th, 1750, and was buried in the ground which his father had acquired.

About his death a curious tale was told. We have seen above how sedulously the Great Synagogue attempted to suppress anything that might lead to a further secession, and it would have been strange if the private synagogue maintained by the Baal Shem of London should have escaped interference. In point of fact it did not. The mystic's personal attendant, Zevi Hirsch of Kalisch, formerly Hazan of Bristol (ancestor of the Collins family, of architectural and music-hall fame), left behind him an interesting diary, in which he recounts with a wealth of detail numerous episodes concerning London Jewry of the time. One of these relates to the year 1749, and to the conventicle in question. "On the festival of Shabuoth," he writes, "Elias Levy [then Warden, with Simon Levin] sent a spy to discover who attended the Sage's private services. [The diarist appends an uncomplimentary ejaculation to Levy's name: " may his name be blotted out!"] On the following Thursday, the Kahal [the phrase is repeated] met and summoned these men and forbade them to infringe the regulations further by going there again. On Sabbath, Sivan 14th, one of these, Moses Fishman, was compelled to stand up in the Synagogue at the afternoon service, when the Scroll was taken from the Ark, to repeat after the Shammash that he had sinned by attending the Synagogue of the Hidden Master [Baal Zaphun], and to beseech the Kahal's pardon. The Sage was greatly angered, and declared that Elias Levy would not live out the year." The prophecy was, of course, punctually fulfilled, as we have seen.

Elias's wife, Judith Hart, bore him several children, of whom only two survived infancy. One, named Benjamin after his grandfather, had died a year after attaining his majority. His sister, Isabella, thus became heiress to great wealth. It is a little consoling for those who deplore the religious decadence of the present day to note how faithfully it was anticipated many generations ago, in what seems to us a period of rigid Jewish observance: and this daughter of a pious house exemplified the fact. Through the medium of the Duchess of Northumberland, with whom her mother was on friendly terms, a match was arranged for her with the Hon. Lockhart Gordon, a member of one of the noblest Scottish families (according to another account, however, it was a clandestine plot). Less than a year after the wedding (not, as legend subsequently asserted, on the day fixed for it) the bride died (March 1754). This proved a terrible blow for her mother. She never returned to her mansion, which was shut up and left exactly as it had been on that tragic day. Henceforth her Town residence was in Albemarle Street, Piccadilly. The majority of her time, however, was spent at Richmond, where her husband had been fond of going and near which her father had built his mansion. Here she bought a house on Richmond Green, known as 4, Maids-of-Honour Row, where Heidegger, Master of the Revels to George II and the ugliest man of his day, had formerly lived. She remained identified with this spot for the remainder of her half-century of widowhood, becoming known in the end as "the Queen of Richmond Green". Though abstemious to a degree, she kept a lucullan table and entertained lavishly. Men noted almost as an eccentricity her kindness to her servants and the manner in which she allowed them the luxuries (as they were then) of coffee and tea. She regularly frequented all the watering-places. She was a notable figure in Society, attending masquerades and balls, and playing at half-guinea quadrille with members of the nobility such as the Countess of Yarmouth, Lady Holderness, and Lord Stormont. But, towards the end of her days, she became more and more eccentric. At her last public appearance at Bath her curious appearance and behaviour were a topic of daily conversation in the pumproom. At Richmond, her manner of life became so secluded that her nearest neighbours did not know her: yet her establishment was still maintained as in the days of her greatest splendour, and every morning her equipage punctually appeared before the door, though it was very seldom used. Only her benevolence was undiminished, for she distributed (it was said) upwards of £1,000 a year in charity.

This was the extraordinary personality who suddenly re-emerged into the history of the Great Synagogue a hundred years after her father-in-law had played so outstanding a part in its foundation.

Mrs Judith Levy, 1706-1803; Benefactress of the Synagogue, 1790

The enlargement of the Great Synagogue in 1766 satisfied requirements for only a short period. The community was perpetually increasing, both by natural growth and by the unending influx from abroad, and before long the demand for accommodation exceeded the number of seats. Accordingly, within less than a generation, it was necessary to enlarge the Synagogue once again. In 1788, two contiguous pieces of ground were acquired on behalf of the Congregation, one from John Western and one from the City authorities, by Levy Samuel, Samuel Joseph, Eleazar Isaac Keyser, Asher Goldsmid, Alexander Isaac and Solomon Henry, and all preliminary preparations were made.4 It was not easy to find the money; the congregation was not in a good financial position, and in 1772 (as we have seen) had been compelled to obtain a mortgage on the Synagogue. At this stage an elderly Fairy Godmother stepped in--the Queen of Richmond Green. She was indeed living in a Gentile circle, and apparently a not entirely orthodox life. But it was her family affair that was in question - the congregation whose founder was Benjamin Levy, her father-in-law, and whose first permanent home had been built by Moses Hart, her father. His original beneficence cost him £2,000. Her generosity was twice as great as his, for in 1787 she contributed no less than £4,000 to the building-fund. With the assistance of this munificent donation, the sacred edifice was radically reconstructed. In November 1788 the ground acquired for the extension was solemnly consecrated, with an exotic ceremonial which the public Press reported with a wealth of inaccurate detail. The new Synagogue contained accommodation for some 750 persons - a little more than 500 in the body of the building, and not quite half that number in the gallery. The structural work was carried out, with admirable effect, according to the designs of James Spiller, the fashionable architect.

Exterior of the Great Synagogue, 1790 (from an engraving)

The presiding officers determined to leave nothing undone on this occasion. It was decided to provide a new ark, impressively placed in a semi-circular apse, a new reading-desk, and new seating, at a cost of an additional £2,000, and a subscription for that amount was opened. It is said that the generous benefactress was furious when she heard the news that notwithstanding her munificence the Synagogue had run into debt, and sending for Wardens rated them soundly; had they applied to her in the first instance, she said, she would have been willing to advance sufficient to complete the good work. Her association with the reconstruction is amply recorded in the inscription on a marble tablet in the forecourt of the Synagogue:

ON THIS SPOT OF GROUND

A.M. 5482

MOSES HART

Late of Isleworth

IN THE COUNTY OF MIDDLESEX, ESQ.

DID IN HIS LIFE TIME

AND AT HIS SOLE EXPENCE:

ERECT A SYNAGOGUE:

WHICH WAS AFTERWARDS TAKEN DOWN

& REBUILT, A.M. 5550

TOWARD WHICH HIS ONLY SURVIVING DAUGHTER

MRS. JUDY LEVY

OF ALBERMARLE STREET

WIDOW OF ELIAS LEVY, ESQ.

VOLUNTARILY SUBSCRIBED

THE SUM OF £4000.

 

In panels around the walls, beneath the ladies' gallery, there were later on inscribed in gold letters the names of those who had contributed to the erection of the new building, prefaced by an elegant poem from the pen (presumably) of the Rabbi himself. At their head was, of course, Mrs. Judith Levy, the most generous of the subscribers. The list continued to be kept up to date, all benefactors of the Synagogue above a certain amount being rewarded by having their names added to the roll.5 It was only at the time of the last redecoration of the Synagogue that this historic record, a little too pragmatic for modern taste, was removed. The only really significant alteration in the building since 1790 has been the lowering, at the close of the last century, of the high brass grill which cut off the women's gallery from the body of the Synagogue. One other feature of the old days, which has happily disappeared, may also be mentioned here. Near the entrance there was a sort of pew, behind the rails of which the poor were herded, so as to prevent them from mingling with the "Privileged" and other members who paid for the upkeep of the building: here, too, belated worshippers adjusted their tephillin before proceeding to their seats. For persons improperly garbed (this description included, later on, those who did not wear top-hats) were not allowed to pass "beyond the bar" of the Synagogue; and even the Courts of Law had their attention engaged periodically by the strict enforcement of this regulation and the disputes (sometimes muscular) which resulted.

Service at the Rededication of the Great Synagogue, 1790 (Title Page)

The new Synagogue was one of the sights of London, and was described in many contemporary works. Thus for example, in Remnant's London, of 1793, we read:

In Duke's Place, the Jews' Synagogue has been lately rebuilt, in a beautiful style of the simplest Grecian architecture, by Mr. Spiller, architect.

More precise architectural details are added in C. F. Partington's Views of London, of 1834 :

The building is of brick, with a roof supported by massy stone pillars... The utmost magnificence is exhibited. From the ceiling are suspended seven modern highly-finished brass branches of peculiarly excellent workmanship; indeed, the whole building is well worthy of inspection; and the beholder is always treated by the congregation with courtesy and respect; so that on a Friday evening, at the commencement of the Sabbath, it is a considerable gratification to hear the solemn chants and service, which added to the tout ensemble, render a visit to this temple of worship very interesting. In front of the building, over the porch, is a large hall, purposely appointed for the celebration of the weddings of poor Jews. This contract is held of such high importance among these people, that its celebration is accompanied by the most extravagant feastings; and that, in such a solemnity, the poor classes may not appear uncomfortable, the whole society, by subscription, ordain the festival in this hall.

James Pelham Malcolm, the American topographer, in his Londinium Redivivium of 1807 (vol. iv, p. 2) also devotes some space to a description of the building, being especially impressed by the Sanctum Sanctorum (i.e. the Ark) which, he says, was very magnificent. But he spoke only from hearsay, as when he wished to inspect the interior he was prevented (as he states) by a number of stout women, who apparently objected to his demeanour. His visit seems to have taken place on a Friday night (perhaps this is why he was not admitted), for he remarks how in Duke's Place "at six o'clock every evening each house exhibits a bright brazen branch, filled with burning tapers".

Another visitor to the Synagogue, who came with more reverent objects and experienced therefore a different reception, was Leigh Hunt, who frequently attended the services when he was a schoolboy. His recollections are worth quoting in full:

I used to go with some of my companions to the Synagogue in Duke's Place, where I took pleasure in witnessing the semi-Catholic pomp of their service and in hearing their fine singing; not without something of a constant astonishment at their wearing their hats... These visits to the Synagogue did me, I conceive, a great deal of good... I have retained through life a respectful notion of the Jews as a body ...I never forgot the Jews' Synagogue, their music, their tabernacle, and the courtesy with which strangers were allowed to see it.6

The new building was opened amid great pomp on Friday, March 26th, 1790 - three days before Passover. (In celebration of this, it is a tradition in the Great Synagogue to chant the Yigdal hymn, on the Friday before Passover, to a special tune, and to place before the Ark embroidery columns from the old building.) The Scrolls of the Law were brought from the vestry-room into the Synagogue under a wedding-canopy and placed in the splendid new Ark, to the accompaniment of solemn chanting. A new velvet curtain, tastefully embroidered, the gift of Mr. E. I. Keyser, was used for the first time. (This too was subsequently brought out, year by year, for the anniversary celebration.) The order of service was compiled by the Rabbi, David Tevele Schiff, who used for it one of the poems that he had composed twenty-four years earlier, at the outset of his period of office, when the dedication of the previous enlargement had taken place; it was translated into English by David Levi, the publicist-in-ordinary to Anglo-Jewry at the time; and the incidental music was composed by Isaac Levy, the assistant Hazan. From her place of honour in the women's gallery, the Queen of Richmond Green heard a special benediction invoked upon her head, preceded by a poetical acrostic based on her name; while the principal poem recounted how "with munificent hands, hath the right noble, and virtuous lady (Yitta, daughter of Moses) Bestow'd a princely sum, to exalt and beautify the house of our God. In the gates will we rehearse her praise, in whose mind her father's noble deeds are imprinted; who nobly thus supplies his loss." The ode went on to express pious hopes intermingled with admonitions. "O may there always be found, in this house of Prayer, the number of ten, to repeat the blessing, Sanctification and Kadeesh, with true piety and fervour. May we restrain our mouth from idle discourse during the Prayer and reading of the Law. Of this, let the Presidents and Elders be careful strictly to admonish the community." Seven circuits of the Synagogue followed, and the prayer for the royal family was impressively chanted by the Reader, the venerable Isaac Polack.

The officers of the congregation when the new place of worship was inaugurated deserve special mention, as on previous occasions. They were:

Wardens:

Jacob Nathan Moses (=Jacob ben Nathan Levy of Rotterdam).

Eliezer Isaac Keyser.

Treasurer:

Lyon de Symons (= R. Leib Pressburg).

Cemetery Treasurer:

Michael ben Benjamin of Fürth.

Charity Overseer:

Abraham Mitchell (=Abraham b. Michael of Ostrow).

Committee:

Michael ben Samson of Fürth.

Lyon Samuel (=Leib b. Zanvil).

Simon Levin.

George (= Gershom) Goldsmid.

David Samuel(=David Pulvermacher of Krotoschin).

Samuel Joseph (=Samuel b. Jossele Hollander).

Levi Barent Cohen (= Levi b. Berman Cohen).

At the time of her great benefaction to the Great Synagogue, Judith Levy was an old woman of eighty-four. But she lived on, more and more shrivelled, more and more eccentric, long after this. It was on January 18th, 1803, that the Queen of Richmond Green died at her mansion in Albemarle Street, Piccadilly. She was buried two days after in the ground which her father-in-law had acquired in 1697 and which her father had enlarged in 1748, between the husband and the son whom she had survived by upwards of half a century. Her death was a bitter blow to many of her relatives and dependants--such as David Wagg, who had distinguished himself as commissary with the British forces in Germany during the recent wars, and his brother Abraham, who had been ruined as a result of his devotion to the loyalist cause at the time of the American War of Independence: for she made no provision for any of them, dying intestate. The whole of her fortune, estimated at upwards of £125,000, passed into the hands of her kinsman, John Franks, in spite of the fact that her husband had bequeathed the reversion to his estate to the children of his sister, Golly Adolphus, whose descendants long endeavoured to assert their claim.7

It seems that Judith Levy acquired immortality at bargain rates. The new synagogue cost in fact far more than her £4,000. The total expenditure was no less than £12,402 10s. 5d.: moreover, hardly was it built than dry rot set in, involving a fresh outlay of £422. To complete the payments it was necessary not only to utilise temporarily the capital of the various annual bequests left to the Synagogue by " Dr." de Falk, Moses Hart and others, but also to borrow a sum of £3,500 to liquidate the outstanding debts. An ingenious method was devised to facilitate this operation. Members' notes-of-hand, at twelve months' date, were accepted for the amount of their subscriptions, renewable on payment of interest for the term of three years, when the loan itself was to be repaid. Hence some members contributed to the good work merely by lending their signatures. However, in most cases the amount was forthcoming in cash, nearly £3,000 out of the £3,500 required being collected in this manner. Among the subscribers were three of the Goldsmid brothers, Abraham, Asher, and George, who subscribed £200 each.

Opening Page of Synagogue Membership Roll, 1791

Even now, some nervousness prevailed as to the future of the institution: for the overhead charges had increased to such an extent that a secession would have entailed the most serious results. In 1794, accordingly, a number of the more prominent members signed an undertaking not to withdraw from the congregation under penalty of a forfeit of £100: but it does not seem that it was ever necessary to enforce this.

The history of the Synagogue site was not quite complete. In 1808, an adjoining piece of ground was acquired for the sum of £1,200 to round off the property, the amount being raised by means of a special loan repayable in six instalments. In 1760, as has been seen, the Court of Common Council had granted a lease at a moderate annual rental of the portion of the site belonging to the City, the agreement being renewable every fourteen years for the next forty years on payment of a fine of £30. In 1800 it was discovered that the period had inadvertently been allowed to expire. The Presiding Warden entered forthwith into negotiations with the City Lands Committee, who treated him in an extremely generous fashion, waiving the technical advantage. The lease was renewed on payment of a fine of £45, together with arrears of interest and costs, and they agreed that after 1815 it should be renewed every fourteen years at an annual rental of £32 on payment of the same fine. Finally, in 1874, the freehold of this portion was purchased from the Corporation by the Council of the newly-established United Synagogue, and from that time the Great Synagogue in its entirety stood on property belonging to the Jewish community.

There was a curious anomaly affecting the Synagogue. The Spanish and Portuguese congregation had never paid Church Rates to the Parish in which it was situated, and an attempt made in 1777 to levy them had been abandoned. (They however paid a poor rate at the scale of £30 per annum.) The Great Synagogue, only a couple of hundred yards away but in a different parish, had on the other hand never been exempt and never claimed exemption. What had originally been due to accident or compulsion became in the end (it seems) a point of pride; and when in 1842 the Board of Deputies took steps to get Jewish places of worship exempted from Poor and Church Rates, the Great Synagogue, though heavily assessed, specifically requested that no action should be taken on its behalf.

Although the architectural history of the Great Synagogue reached its culmination in 1790, it was not quite complete. In 1823 the building was redecorated and repaired, a reconsecration service being held on August 29th of that year. The heating apparatus installed in the building was defective and dangerous, this leading to three outbreaks of fire in 1834, and in the following year a further rededicatory service was performed, as was the case also in 18528 and periodically after. In the summer of 1889, when a further renovation took place, the work included the remarbling of the columns supporting the gallery and the regilding of the capitals. On this occasion too the choir gallery was enlarged and the entrances were improved: and, the level of Duke Street having recently been altered by the City authorities, the access to the Synagogue on that side was lowered to correspond with it. In 1900, the central entrance on the ground floor, with narrow gangways on each side, was replaced by a new doorway at the west end; fifty new free seats were provided; and stone staircases were constructed to the women's gallery. The latest thorough-going restoration took place early in 1930, when the entire scheme of decoration was changed and (as has been mentioned) the lists of donations to the Synagogue were removed from the walls.

Subsequent work on the Synagogue did not entail any fresh financial strain like that of 1790. Among the pillars of the community at the time was Daniel Eliason (known in the Synagogue as Tanhum ben Elijah Neumegen), a connexion and partner of the Goldsmids and with them a patron of Braham's. (A scroll of the law presented by him in 1818 with full appurtenances, including a pointer set with diamonds, is still in the possession of the Congregation.) When he died in 1824, he left some thousands of pounds to be funded in order to keep the fabric in a good state of decoration and repair in perpetuity.

Eliason Scroll Mantle, 1819

At the time of the construction of the new Synagogue building, the cemetery in Mile End, opened in 1697 and enlarged in 1749, was becoming full. No adjacent land being now available, it was impossible to extend it further. Not far distant lay the burial-ground which had been acquired by the New Synagogue on its establishment in 1761. A piece of ground contiguous to this, on the west side of what was then called Ducking Pond Lane, was vacant: and in 1795 the freehold was acquired by the Great Synagogue at a cost of £600, largely contributed by Abraham and Asher Goldsmid. Since all the land was not required immediately, a portion was sub-let to a Christian, with the proviso that part should be used for growing willows for Synagogal use during the Feast of Tabernacles.9 Henceforth the two congregations, the Great and the New, shared the same House of Life (though using different sections of it) and the ill-feeling which had originally prevailed between them was rapidly dispelled. Ducking Pond Lane later became known as North Street, and ultimately as Brady Street. The cemetery remained in use regularly until 1858, when the two congregations initiated their new joint cemetery at West Ham. In Brady Street are buried therefore the communal worthies of the late Hanoverian period and the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria, including (besides successive Rabbis and officials of the congregation) the brothers Goldsmid, the great philanthropists and financiers; David Levi, the scholarly defender of Judaism; and Nathan Mayer Rothschild, founder of his house in England, and other members of his family.

The building of the new Synagogue coincided approximately with yet another development that made the last decade of the eighteenth century mark a turning-point in the history of the Congregation. Hitherto, the records (other than the financial ones, which from about 1750 are very full and in splendid preservation) had been extremely sketchy and sporadic--hence the historian's difficulty in his attempt to reconstruct the history of the institution in the first century of its existence. In 1794, a more comprehensive system began, and from that year the minutes of the governing body are preserved in full and regular sequence. At the beginning, in accordance with the earlier tradition, the language generally used is Yiddish. Within a few years, however, English began to make its appearance with increasing frequency (in the account-books it had first figured in 1771). On May 14th, 1807, it was unanimously resolved that all proceedings should henceforth be recorded both in English and in "Jewish" (Yehudith): in case of any subsequent dispute, the English version was to be followed. After 1815, English alone was used, except for names, which for a long time continued to figure in both languages (as had been the practice ever since 1773), the Surname being included generally only in the vernacular list.

Systematic registration of births, marriages and deaths similarly begins in 1791 being introduced by the revised statutes of the congregation (of which more details will be given later on) which came into force at the time of the dedication of the new Synagogue. In accordance with a resolution of October 6th, 1765, a sporadic record had indeed been kept in certain instances, and by special request, before this (though only a few of the entries relating to births have been preserved), and even now, not all took the trouble to have family events entered. When in 1816 an application was made to the congregation for a certificate of the marriage of Moses Franks and of the birth of some of his children, it could not be furnished. It was now realised how unsatisfactory this optional system was, and a committee was appointed, consisting of Hyman Cohen, Nathaniel Nathan and Solomon Cohen, to arrange the details of a scheme of compulsory registration. Thus, somewhat tardily, the Great Synagogue family records became as comprehensive and complete as ordinary parish registers, and provide full information for the enquirer. After 1837, when compulsory civil registration came into force, the Synagogal registration of births was made superfluous, and henceforth there is a gradual decline; so that now, as in the early days, only one or two householders, for sentimental reasons, have entries made in the Synagogue register, which is still kept open. For certain purposes, an entry in a circumcision register might serve a similar purpose (as even the Courts of Law recognised), but none of those dating back to the eighteenth century which have survived concerns the Great Synagogue specifically. (In most cases, indeed, the registration of the Hebrew names only, without any English details, robs these records of a good deal of their historical value.) The primitive method of making a birth known to members of the congregation, in the days before the establishment of Jewish newspapers, was by having it announced by the Beadle in Synagogue after service. This, once the invariable London practice, was continued in the Great Synagogue by some staunch conservatives until the Victorian era was well advanced; and it was thus that the advent to the world of many of the stalwarts of Anglo-Jewry was heralded.

 

1 Lucien Wolf stated that he was only two years old at the time, but this, and his account of Levy's two marriages, may be an unjustified deduction from the issue of a fresh Ketubah in 1699 (see p. 23).

2 See above, page 25.

3 See plate 27: this is the oldest dated silver in the possession of the congregation.

4 The absence of any member of the Franks family in Synagogal activity of this sort, for the first time for half a century, is noteworthy. Solomon Henry (Shelomo ben Hirsch Bloch, of Langendorf in Silesia) was a former employee of Moses Hart's who set up in business on his own account, and one of whose sons became Patentee of St. Kitt's; a good deal of his correspondence from London is preserved.

The property acquired from John Western is described as "on the south side of a passage from Shoemaker Row to Duke's Place": that acquired from the City as "Tenements and Buildings near Mitre Court, Duke's Place".

5 The Legacy Board was installed in consequence of a resolution of April 17th, 1823.

6 There is a less flattering description of the Synagogue and its worshippers in Real Life in London (1841) pp, 479-480.

7 Advertisements regarding this claim periodically appeared in Press until quite recently: e.g. in October 1907, when an enquiry was made for information about the children of Alexander Levy, who was believed to be somehow connected with Benjamin Levy.

8 On this occasion there were some ill-natured observations in The Times, ably replied to in the Jewish Chronicle by M. H. Bresslau. (His reply was also published separately, under the title: "The Re-opening of the Great Synagogue", being a few "Observations in reply to The Times report of Friday, September 3rd, 1852".)

9 The scrupulousness in this matter was characteristic of Jewish delicacy of feeling: it was desired to ensure that for religious purposes even so commonplace a thing as a willow-branch should be formally and honestly acquired. It may be mentioned that the Great Synagogue Shamash used to supply the branches for Hosanna Rabba to the Synagogue in Westminster also.

 

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