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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter VI



ALREADY in 1722, Duke's Place was distinctly and unmistakably Jewish in population, as contemporary guide-books unanimously informed the curious traveller. As early as 1677, in the London Directory--the earliest publication of the sort - "Mr. Samuel" of Duke's Place had figured (presumably to be identified with Samuel Heilbuth), not to mention various Sephardi names. A sketch of the Synagogue site, annexed to a deed of 1721, shows the new place of worship to adjoin the houses of Solomon Sampson, David Marks, Laso Levy and Solomon David. In the London press of July 23rd, 1725, we find Isaac Abraham, of Duke's Place, advertising for a lost pocket-book. In the immediate neighbourhood, of course, Jewish associations were almost equally strong. In 1727, Abraham Benedictus, whose address is given as " The Rising Sun ", tallow-chandler's, in Houndsditch, offers a reward for assistance in tracing a certain Dutchman named Moses Levy. In 1736, a Jewish tea-merchant in the Minories comes into the news: while in 1754 Solomon Isaac, of Duke's Place, advertises for his wife, who had apparently eloped. The Synagogue area was thus the centre of a little world of its own, where every requirement could be satisfied at Jewish hands. Opposite the synagogue Hyman Levy, "a Jew penny-barber ", exercised his trade in 1753. There was more than one Jewish butcher, and even a Jewish milkman. Later on, "Sam's Coffee House" catered for Jewish needs, and provided an accommodation-address for Jewish business-men, and it probably had a precursor filling the same functions many years before.

It is possible to reconstruct a vivid picture of the inner life of London Jewry in these far-off days with the aid of the regulations of 1722 and subsequent additions. Divine worship followed (as has been indicated) the Polish rite according to the usage of Hamburg, as had been the case "from old time, in former years": though even at this early date the practice of ending the service with the antiphonal singing of the hymn Yigdal had been introduced. Decorum was not neglected. The worshippers were enjoined under pain of fine not to chew tobacco in Synagogue, nor to attend service wearing slippers1 or caps. (The first of these regulations was renewed in 1756 when the practice was succinctly described as a miusskeit.) The old-time practice of throwing sweetmeats on a bridegroom when he was called up to the Reading of the Law, on the Sabbath after his marriage, and on the symbolical bridegrooms on Simhath Torah, was prohibited: though this restriction subsequently fell into desuetude. Care was taken not to permit the service to be spun out unnecessarily, thus making it a burden on the congregation: for example, the Reader was forbidden for this reason to indulge in the luxury of chanting the hymn Ehad Yahid on this occasion. Members were prohibited to attend service in any rival congregation that might be set up within a radius of ten miles, or even in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. As a matter of course, special attention was paid to religious instruction: it was not permitted to open a Heder (or infants' school) without the express licence of the Synagogal authorities, who thus were able to assert some measure of control; while no one over thirty who had left his wife abroad was to be permitted to retain office as a teacher of youth for more than three years consecutively. (A similar regulation was enforced by the Jewish communities in Lithuania.) Disputes between members should not be aired before the law-courts but were to be submitted to the officers of the community for arbitration: only after the defendant had been solemnly summoned to plead on three occasions by the Beadle, and had failed to put in appearance, was the plaintiff empowered to take legal steps before the civil authorities. Notwithstanding his relationship to the communal Maecenas, the authority of the Rabbi was considerably restricted, and he was not allowed to place anyone in Herem (excommunication), nor to officiate at a marriage or divorce, nor even to intervene in any private quarrel, without the sanction of the Wardens... So the regulations went on, throughout their ninety-seven elegantly phrased clauses, mostly introduced by a crude Hebrew couplet.

It was originally intended that the code should last for only eight years, until 1730. In the event, it remained in vigour for nearly ten times as long, until 1791, constant additions and modifications bringing the total number of clauses in the end up to 211.

The ladies of the congregation of course followed the fashions of their Gentile sisters. In the middle of the eighteenth century, when feminine costume occupied fully three times as much cubic space as the feminine body, this presented the synagogal authorities with a serious problem, in view of the limited accommodation: and in 1755 it was solemnly decided that no lady should be admitted to the Synagogue on the High Holydays wearing a hoop. If they had equal pleasure in attending with their glory thus restricted, human nature has strangely changed.

Communal discipline was rigidly enforced. When in 1747 Jospa ben Jacob Buchtel, of Amsterdam, was so ill-advised as to arrange services in his house in Bethnal Green, drastic action was taken, lest this Minyan should also develop into a secessionist synagogue: and this was not by any means the only case of the sort.2 In 1749, the Rabbi was insulted in the street by Baer ben Pheis Frank: fortunately for the latter, he expressed his contrition in time, for otherwise he would have incurred the most severe penalties. Serious action had to be taken, however, in 1756 against one Simeon Levy, who attacked the Treasurer, Man ben Haim Gokkes (? = Menahem Hendricks3) inside the sacred edifice. Amorous enthusiasms, too, had to be reckoned with: and in 1750 it was decided that any person who married a damsel without her father's consent should be excluded from synagogal rights and privileges. For a man to make his peace with the congregation after a lapse was no simple matter, entailing not only a monetary fine but humiliation as well: he would be compelled to stand up in Synagogue during Service, when the Scroll was being taken out of the Ark, and to repeat after the Beadle a confession of his wrongdoing, a promise not to repeat it, and abject apology to the Kahal, whose pardon was humbly supplicated. This was the fate, in 1768, of Samuel ben R. Anschel, who was guilty of making a disturbance by insulting the Wardens in Synagogue on the seventh day of Passover, the Hillul haShem being enhanced by the fact that there were several Gentiles present on that occasion. In the old days he might have been condemned to thirty-nine stripes: but he was instead mulcted in thirty-nine halfcrowns, this being the punishment also of Gershom ben Isaac (known to the general public at Mr. George Isaacs), who insulted the Parnassim in Synagogue on the first day of Tabernacles, in the autumn of 1774.

It was laid down by the regulations that persons who had frequent occasion to undertake journeys to the Continent were not to be elected to administrative office. This was necessary: for the communal magnates were familiar wherever Jewish merchants foregathered. In the list of those Jews who obtained passes for the famous Leipzig Fairs several Londoners figure--Aaron Hart (possibly identical with the Rabbi: 1713), Moses Adolphus, later Warden of the Great Synagogue, with his son and D. Salomon (1724); Solomon Goldschmidt and Nathan Abraham, with Seckel Bing(1728); Solomon Isaac (1725); Jacob Levy (1735, 40, 47/8, 63); Joseph Meyer (servant to young Mr. Ollen: 1745); and Jacob Bacharach (1755). Several of these persons, or their families, may be traced in the Synagogal records. Cosman Lehmann of Halberstadt, son of the Herz Lehmann mentioned in an earlier chapter of this work, was known as "Engelland", and presumably travelled backwards and forwards on business. In English sources, one finds recurrent allusions to persons such as Aaron Lazarus, the jeweller, who specialised in trinkets and antiques, and enjoyed a distinguished clientele among the aristocracy--almost certainly a member of the Great Synagogue, though he does not seem to have played any part in its administration. He typifies the class of wealthy jewellers who, with a sprinkling of wholesale merchants, brokers and stock-jobbers, constituted the communal aristocracy, upon whose shoulders a good deal of the financial burden of the synagogue rested.

An insight into the composition of the communal proletariat is provided by the first lists of members and the account-books--the only portion of the early records, other than the regulations of 1722, that is now extant. A number of them seem to have been in service with their wealthy coreligionists: thus we encounter Isaac, servant of the Franks, Behr the servant, Abraham "Cook" and Moses ben Hayim "Footman" Some found employment in the houses of Sephardi magnates: we have, for example, Samuel Levi, of Epsom, the servant of Rodrigues, at quite an early date (c. 1718), who was probably a co-employee of "Leizer Epsom, Cook". Besides being perplexed at the problem of whether it was their moral obligation to support these lowly and unattached coreligionists if they fell sick or on evil days, the community objected to the servile atmosphere they introduced to the Synagogue, excluded them from full membership and liturgical honours, and flatly forbade them to attend service wearing their livery ("livery-malbushim", as the 28th regulation quaintly put it). A few other professions are specified in the records: sugar-baker, cravats-washer, several tailors, a goldsmith, a watch-maker, a diamond-polisher, a barber, and so on; later on, we encounter more than one "lemon-man" - itinerant fruit-vendors, such as are depicted in Wheatley's "Cries of London" - and, in another source, a fishman. The places of provenance mentioned include Hamburg, Halberstadt, Harzfeld, Neumegen, Middleburg, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Prague, Lissa, Posen, Charleville, Berlin, Koenigsberg, Brest-Litovsk, Vienna, and so on (all these places are specified before the middle of the century). But, by the side of these foreigners, there were others whose very names showed that their families were firmly established in Cockaigne: such as our old friend Phineas ben Leib Hamburger, known as Benny Alexander, or Jacob ben Elchanan, called Cocky Jacobs.

The membership of the Synagogue was not confined to London. Its roll of members comprises persons in many parts of England. Not only is it thus an invaluable aid to the reconstruction of the history of the Jewish communities in the provinces, but in more than one case it constitutes the first evidence of the settlement of Jews at the place in question. The earliest membership-list (c. 1750) provides us with the name of Moses Abrahams, of Poole, son-in-law of Reb Aberle and ancestor of Lord Samuel; and Henry Moses, of Dover, ancestor of Colonel Goldsmid and of the present Lord Swaythling. In 1762, Rabbi Hirsch of Kalisch, Hazan of the new community of Bristol, was admitted to membership; he was the forebear of the Collins family, of music-hall and architectural fame, as well as of Felix A. Davis, at one time Treasurer of the United Synagogue. In the following year, the congregation welcomed Manele ben Zalman of Exeter, Jacob ben Samuel of Portsmouth and Moses ben Jacob Ballin of Nottingham. 1766/7 saw the enrolment of Nathan ben Elijah of Lincoln (grandfather of Ney Elias, the explorer), Natte ben Naphtali of Margate, and Ensele ben Samuel Cohen of Brighthelmstone, as well as of "Sam Irishman", who is identical with Samuel Davis of Portsmouth; hence came too, in 1744/5, Jacob Levy, son of Benjamin Levy, the founder of that community, from whom are descended the Waley family and others. Meir Aryeh ben Mordecai of Greenwich is entered in 1783/4. The Synagogue was then even in these early years more than a local place of worship; it was a nation-wide Jewish religious association.

Relations with the Spanish and Portuguese community were generally smooth. Complications were not indeed entirely absent. In 1718, one Jacob Mazahod, a disgruntled member of the older body, made a legacy of £5,000 on condition that the beneficiary had him buried either in the Ashkenazi cemetery or else in Amsterdam. There was something of a secession to join the tudescos in 1730, and in 1737 a special meeting was called to consider the case of a member who had begun to frequent the German synagogue. Notwithstanding occasional clouds of this nature, the Gentlemen of the Mahamad treated the Gentlemen of the "Dutch Jews' Synagogue" in Duke's Place with courtesy, not altogether free from patronage: while on the other hand, every week the latter paid homage to the erudition of the former Sephardi Haham, David Nieto, who had fixed the religious calendar for the meridian of London which obtains in this country to the present day. Each Friday, between the afternoon and evening services, the Shamash of the older congregation would proceed forth from Bevis Marks, with a proper escort, and march to Duke's Place, where his tudesco colleague would solemnly greet him: and, on the threshold of the Synagogue, he would pompously present the compliments of the Gentlemen of the Mahamad and inform the sister community of the hour when the following Sabbath would begin. This custom long survived the publication of printed calendars, which gave full details not for a week but for a year ahead, and died out only in the present century.

The cordial relations between the two bodies did not, however, imply that the Sephardim had ceased to consider themselves a superior caste. Legend reports how some of the hidalgos would have a room sprayed with scent after a tudesco had been in it. This is indubitably a gross exaggeration: but it is certain that the objection to intermarriage between the members of the two groups (as strong indeed on the Ashkenazi side as on the other, if we may accept the evidence of Benjamin Levy's will) continued unabated. When in I744 Jacob Israel Bernal, a descendant of a family of Inquisitional martyrs and Gabbai of the K. K. Sahar Asamaim, applied to the Mahamad for leave to marry Johebed Baruch, a tudesca, he was compelled to resign, and the most humiliating conditions were imposed before the ceremony was authorised, and then only in a truncated form. (It was because of this episode that the Bernal family, who afterwards furnished English politics and society with some beloved figures, began to become estranged from Judaism.)

A particularly intimate glimpse of the life of the community at this time is afforded by a curious work published in 1738: The Book of Religion, Ceremonies, and Prayers; of the Jews, as Practised in their Synagogues and Families on all Occasions: On their Sabbath and other Holy-Days Throughout the Year. To which is added, A Preface shewing the Intent of the Whole. The Contents, and an Index, with the HEBREW Title of each Prayer made ENGLISH; With many Remarkable Observations and Relations of the Rabbies: All which are what the Modern Jews Religiously observe. Translated immediately from the HEBREW, by GAMALIEL BEN PEDAHZUR. Gent. It subsequently transpired that "Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, Gent.", who was responsible for this egregious production, was a pseudonym of Abraham Mears, an apostate member of one of the oldest families of the Ashkenazi community in England. The volume is saturated with malice, having little object other than to cast ridicule upon the author's former coreligionists.

The translation is unimportant, except for the fact that it is the earliest integral rendering of the Jewish liturgy in English; and it displays on almost every page the author's crass ignorance of what he had the effrontery to criticise. The introductory description of Jewish rites and ceremonies, on the other hand, though similarly marred by malice and lack of knowledge, is of considerable interest, giving as it does a graphic, detailed, and at times not unamusing picture of London Jewish life - in particular, it must be accentuated, the life of the community of the Great Synagogue, in which Mears had been brought up - in the first half of the eighteenth century.

London Jewry, it appears, was meticulous in its observance, not merely of the Shulhan Arukh, but also of innumerable superstitions, of which Gamaliel does not fail to make capital. Belief in the Evil Eye was general. There were, however, certain old women who made it their business to counteract it by a process of fumigation, at a fixed scale of charges: though, being themselves Ashkenazi, they made the Spanish Jews pay more than the Germans. In the synagogue, what was subsequently to be regarded as the characteristic Anglo-Jewish pronunciation of Hebrew already prevailed: Awdown Owlom, Awbeenue Molkeinue, Coddish de Raubonnen, Attah chownen lyodem dawoss, are a few characteristic specimens of Gamaliel's transliteration. It was unusual for unmarried women to attend Synagogue, except on Simhath Torah and Purim. Every Sabbath afternoon, the poorer class religiously went to bed. As for costume: the Jew, like his Gentile neighbour, affected the irksome dignity of a periwig, which the Rabbis' regulations permitted him to comb out even on the Sabbath. The young sparks habitually went about with swords but on the day of rest, when they were enjoined to attach a wooden blade to the hilt, the majority preferred to do without. If Gamaliel is to be believed (but it seems that occasionally he is badly confused when he deals with such matters) it was the custom to use a sedan-chair as a substitute for a coach or horseback on that day. (Not, in any case, for synagogue attendance, as in 1755 it Was laid down that 'chairs' were not to be admitted at any time within the portals of the place of worship.) Weddings and betrothals, the egregious Gamaliel informs us, were conducted in full continental style, with feasting and music spread over several days. We are even told something of the menu on such occasions--wine and drams, with coffee, chocolate and tea for those who liked such new-fangled beverages, and cakes and sweetmeats to eat. Of one wedding ceremony at this period, on August 24th, 1720, almost certainly held under the auspices of the Great Synagogue (just before the construction of Moses Hart's new Shool) we happen to be minutely informed, for public attention was attracted to what was happening and there were accounts in the contemporary news-sheets. Leathersellers' Hall was rented for the festivities, which lasted for six days. A guard of Grenadiers was hired to escort the bridal procession. Silver favours were distributed bearing effigies of the happy pair, accompanied by the motto: "This is God's Command." Large numbers of the nobility and gentry were invited and came to gratify their curiosity, including the Prince of Wales himself, who bore the apologies of his wife, who hoped that the bride (her name was Cornele) would soon be prevented from attending parties for the same reason that now kept her back.

Later on, some scandal was caused by the practice of including in the wedding-celebrations dances in non-Jewish places of resort, these being held even on the Sabbath. It was accordingly forbidden for the day of rest to be desecrated henceforth by the playing of instrumental music of any sort, and the Beadle was strictly prohibited to announce such gatherings in Synagogue, in the fashion which was customary before the modern fashion of sending out invitations became usual.

Non-Jewish visitors to the Synagogue must have been frequent; indeed, it was largely for their benefit that Gamaliel's work was compiled. It figures in some contemporary guide-books as one of the sights of London (though one still has to be on one's guard against confusion with the neighbouring Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue). Thus, in A New Guide to London, or Directions to Strangers (French and English: second edition, 1726) We read of "Duke's Place, where most of the Jews dwell; you may on a Saturday go and see their Synagogue, which is very fine; but the streets of their resort are very dirty and disagreeable". One foreign visitor whom we know to have taken this advice was the Comte de Saussure, when he was in London in 1729 (who, again, may possibly have mixed up the two Jewish places of worship which he inspected). He records that in what he terms the "Dutch Synagogue" (which he described as small but pretty) "the women do not mix with the men, but stood in a sort of shut-off gallery. The men covered their heads with a piece of silken stuff or veil, the Rabbi's veil being black, as also their cloaks and garments." After the service, a circumcision was held in the Synagogue, and he gives an account of the procedure. It is interesting to note that he was not the only non-Jewish onlooker, a Christian lady being present also. We know of one other curious congregational episode of about this time, when there were such disorders in the synagogue during the service that the parish constable was called in to keep the peace, and two of the ringleaders were haled off before a magistrate. Unfortunately, no further details are given.4

The Rejoicing of the Law was, of course, an occasion for universal merriment. Gamaliel ben Pedahzur records how on this festivity "the women usually fling down sugar-plums to the Children in the Men's Synagogue, and the Children have all Flags and Banners in their Hands to play with, and the whole Congregation are as merry as you please". So merry, indeed, that it was thought advisable to curtail the celebrations to some extent. From 1722 (perhaps earlier still) it was forbidden for a Scroll of the Law to be carried into the women's section of the Synagogue on this occasion (Takkanah XVI) and for sweets to be thrown down on the symbolic bridegrooms (§XVII). Still, decorum left much to be desired, and the fourth of the supplementary regulations made after the redaction of the original code deprived the celebrations of one of its most distinctive features (and one which gave rise to the greatest degree of commotion in the synagogue) by abolishing the traditional circuits with the Scrolls of the Law during the evening service, and restricting the number of Scrolls taken out for the purpose in the morning to three, the barest possible minimum. This restriction must have been short-lived, and in 1759 the circuit with the Scrolls during the evening service was reintroduced. A more durable and less exceptionable reform which was passed in 1735 abolished the practice of selling the honours of acting as Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshith on this occasion, the offices in question being distributed in future by lot (a fine of £5 was imposed after 1750 on those who refused). But the carnival spirit could not be destroyed by mere regulations. After the evening service, the two Bridegrooms used to be escorted home from the synagogue by a demonstrative procession of congregants, carrying banners and torches, and singing lustily. For Jewish boys, the occasion was an anticipation and compensation for Guy Fawkes Day, which came a little later in the autumn and as yet bore something of a religious tinge, and fireworks, serpents and crackers would be thrown lavishly and indiscriminately. In 1784, this led to tragedy in Duke's Place, when a certain non-Jew, Joseph Ridout, exasperated beyond his powers of endurance, fired his blunderbuss at the crowd of urchins who were annoying him and killed the thirteen-year-old Moses Lazarus.

But this is an anticipation, and we must return to the first half of the eighteenth century, to Moses Hart's Shool and those who maintained it.


1 "Unless he has sore feet"! The "fine" was assessed at one shilling: that for tobacco-chewing at 4s. 6d.

2 See below, pp, 120-2 and 165•

3 Father of Hayim ben Man Hendricks, who was Assistant Scribe to the Synagogue in 1771/2.

4 Cf. the deposition in the Guildhall Archives, C. R. Repertory, vol. cxxix: London

I Thomas Lewis of St. James's Dukes place London Scourer voluntarily makes Oath. That when he was Constable in the year 1723 he this Depont was called to keep the peace (there being a great Disturbance in the Jews Synagogue in the place aforesd) in the time of their Service and was there Charged with two men in his Custody for making the sd. Disturbance who were carried before a Magistrate by the Depont in Order to be Dealt with according to Law. Tho Lewis

From the context, it seems as though this disorder had something to do with the Hambro' Synagogue secessionists.

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