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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XI



DAVID TEVELE SCHIFF began his Rabbinate in the Synagogue erected by Moses Hart in 1722; he continued in office throughout the duration of the enlarged building which he consecrated in 1766: he lived to see the inauguration of the majestic place of worship used by the congregation to-day. Yet, save in the architectural sense, his Rabbinate was not eventful. Its main features were the constant expansion of London Jewry, numerically and economically; the growing anglicisation of its dominant section; and the consolidation of the newly-established congregations in the provinces, which by the close of his life were still further increased in number and importance, all looking to him for spiritual direction.

A number of his letters have been preserved - mostly written to his brother, Meir Schiff, Rabbi of Copenhagen--from which it is possible to obtain a glimpse of his personality and private life. Owing to the unfortunate quarrel with the Hambro' Synagogue, the Rabbi did not have as large an income as his predecessor. His salary was indeed raised to £250 in 1768, but it was brought down to the former level three years later, and during the period of economic distress that accompanied the War of American Independence, proposals were made at every synagogue meeting to reduce it even further. The worst was that, after Rabbi Meshullam Solomon left London, Rabbi Schiff was expected to do the work of the Hambro' Synagogue as well; and though there was some tall< of asking them to contribute £50 a year towards his salary, that would have brought him no personal benefit. He even failed to receive from the junior congregation the marriage fees which every Rabbi regarded as his perquisite, for on such occasions members preferred to have recourse to their own Hazan.1 "You imagine that London is a Kehilla!" the Rabbi sighed. "Far from it!" Twice, indeed, he attempted to change his position. In 1781, he had hopes of being appointed Rabbi at Rotterdam, but was thwarted by a member of the ubiquitous Emden family; in the following year, he applied for the vacant Rabbinate at Würzburg, his letter being lost at sea by enemy action. Thus he was fated to remain in London - a town where, as he complained, he had no colleagues or pupils with whom he could discuss congenial points of Jewish law or literature. There seems to have been, on the other hand, plenty to occupy his time, what with hopeful young members of the community who espoused the damsels of their choice with a religious ceremony of doubtful validity, applications from abroad (and even from America) for assistance in every manner of personal and business difficulty,2 scapegraces who got themselves into trouble and required superhuman efforts to save them, and the serious business of buying tickets in the lottery.

His wife, Breinle Sinzheim, died not long after his appointment to London, leaving him an only son, Moses. Afterwards, her niece, Mindel, daughter of Solomon Sinzheim, acted as his housekeeper, subsequently perpetuating her position by becoming his daughter-in-law, But he had to look after many domestic details himself, such as ordering from Frankfort half-a-dozen plain white nightcaps and as many coloured handkerchiefs - coloured, not white, on account of the snuff which he was in the habit of taking.3

There was one point of Tevele Schiff's life at which he became a principal actor in a dramatic episode of Anglo-Jewish history. When in June 1780 the No Popery Riots had terrified London, it is said that the good Jews of Duke's Place, so as to avoid any possibility of molestation, chalked on their doors the prophylactic phrase: "This house is true Protestant". Later on, the erstwhile Protestant leader, Lord George Gordon, began to feel the attractions of the Jewish faith and, after prolonged study, determined to embrace it formally. It was natural for him to approach in the first instance the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue (this must have been some time in the summer of 1786). The latter, an eminently sensible person, who was well aware of the nervousness which prevailed in the community as regards the making of proselytes and the serious preoccupation that had been caused in the past by cases of individuals less illustrious than the son of an English duke, and less in the public eye than the founder of the Protestant Association, refused outright. (The correspondence relative to the application, extant within living memory and read by the late Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, Tevele Schiff's great-nephew, has since disappeared, so that the exact details will never be known.) In consequence, it was under the auspices of the Hambro' Synagogue that the eccentric nobleman entered Judaism. But he never seems to have forgiven Rabbi Schiff for his action, and his curious Letter to Angel Lyon on the wearing of Beards virtually accused him of accepting bribes from the wealthier members of his flock.

The general picture of the time is confirmed by a Yiddish pamphlet published in London in 1791 (cf. Jewish Chronicle for April 5th, 1907), which deplored contemporary laxity in unmeasured terms. Parents allowed their children to go bareheaded; men and women came together in dancing academies, where they embraced one another without shame; they dressed like lords and ladies, and could not be distinguished from Gentiles. Such complaints were of course part of the moralist's stock-in-trade.

The lay heads of the community during Tevele Schiff's Rabbinate belonged to the same families that had played the principal part hitherto - in particular that of Franks. Moses Hart had of course been recognised until his death, whether he held office or no, as the principal member of "his" synagogue. Thereafter this unquestioned primacy lapsed. From 1769 onwards, however, we find Aaron Franks, his son-in-law, formally recognised and referred to as Head of the Congregation (Rosh haKahal)--its presiding and proprietary genius, as it were - as Moses Marcus and, after him, the Isaac family were of the Hambro' Synagogue. He died in 1777, aged ninety-three; and in the autumn of that year his kinsman Naphtali was elected Rosh haKahal for life in his place. After 1786 the latter's name is omitted. The Great Synagogue now had no place for a dictator. It must be observed, however, that the successive Heads of the Community amply paid for the honour bestowed upon them, in hard cash and devoted labour.

Opening page of Isaac Polack's Prayer Book, 1776

Rabbi Schiff's principal coadjutor in the Synagogue throughout the period of his Rabbinate was Isaac Elias Polack, who, appointed Hazan in 1746, had officiated at the dedication of the new structure twenty years later and continued to conduct the services throughout its duration and for more than a decade after. A fine mezzotint portrait of him is extant, engraved in 1779 by Bolton after a painting by Burgess. He is clean-shaven and white-wigged; his mobile lips seem to be suppressing an anecdote or a sarcasm; and he is wearing his three-cornered hat and clerical bands. It is a fine, handsome face, very much that of the lady's man. (The legend describes him as "Rev.d Isaac Polack, Chief Reader of the Great Synagogue", while another portrait of twenty years later gives him the unearned title "D.D.") The Synagogue still possesses a splendid folio prayer-book, magnificently indited on vellum, which he wrote with his own hand and presented to the Congregation in 1776 - an act of piety fittingly commemorated in the Memorbuch together with the monetary donations of the wealthy. There seems to have been a temporary interruption in his services in 1781 when (apparently in consequence of giving a guarantee to an unworthy coreligionist) he was imprisoned for debt, to the Rabbi's profound distress: but his release was secured in time for him to officiate at the High Festivals that autumn. He died in 1802, when he was not less than seventy-five years of age and had been in the service of the Synagogue for fifty-six years.4

The names of one or two others who assisted on the Reading Desk of the Great Synagogue at this period are preserved. Thus, for example, in 1778 Joseph (ben Leizer) Lazarus appears as Reader, and two years later Isaac (ben Joseph) Levy was appointed assistant Hazan for two months at a fee of £7 10s. He seems to have given satisfaction, for he was still in office in 1795, having composed the music on the dedication of the new building in 1790.

The Hazan was assisted by a choir only on special occasions. Normally, as we have seen, the traditional arrangement of the Continental synagogue applied in England also. On the reading desk, by the side of the cantor, stood two persons who assisted him in the choral portions of the service: on the right the Meshorrer, or [tenor] singer; and on the left the Bassista, or bass. They were something between musical accompaniment and choir. It was their duty to extemporise choral pendants to the Hazan's improvisations; and on occasions such as the Day of Atonement they were expected to provide vocal diversions from time to time in order to permit him to rest his voice when he seemed tired. Mention has already been made of one or two of these versatile performers. There was one, at this period, who outshone all the rest. In the outside world, even Hazan Polack's reputation was trivial as compared with that of one of his assistants. Meir ben Judah or Meir Lyon, better known by the Italianate name of Myer or Michael Leoni, who had already appeared on the stage of Drury Lane, entered the service of the Synagogue as chorister in 1767, at a salary of £40 per annum, on the understanding that he was to behave as a Yehudi Kasher. (His emolument was reduced in 1772, when the congregation was in serious financial straits, to £32, but after two years was again raised to the former figure, on the understanding that no public offerings should henceforth be made on behalf of the Meshorrerim.) The sweetness of his voice created a veritable furore. Non-Jews as well as Jews came to hear him. In 1770, Charles Wesley was among the audience one Friday night, and recorded the fact in his Journal. "I was desirous to hear Mr. Leoni sing at the Jewish synagogue," he writes. "I never before saw a Jewish congregation behave so decently." With him, Wesley took the Methodist minister, Thomas Olivers, who was so deeply impressed at the singing of Yigdal that he adapted the melody for his hymn, The God of Abraham Praise. The adaptation had an enormous success, thirty editions being published within the next twenty years.5

Antique Ritual Silver

Leoni did not remain much longer the exclusive property of the congregation. He drifted again to the stage under the auspices of David Garrick, though always stipulating that he should never appear on Friday evenings, when his melody enriched the Synagogue service. He was taken up by the wealthy members of the community, who found some pride in exhibiting this synagogal prodigy to their Gentile acquaintances. Aaron Franks, for example, had him down one day in November 1774 to his house at Isleworth to sing at a concert, to which he invited several members of the aristocracy. Horace Walpole, who was there, was enthusiastic in his praise of the Jewish singer. "There is a full melancholy in his voice, though a falsetta," he wrote. "that nothing but a natural voice can ever compass."

But it was not easy to serve two masters simultaneously. The day came when a report reached the ears of the Synagogue authorities that their much-esteemed officiant had sung in a performance of Handel's Messiah. This proved the last straw. For some time to come he had to choose the operatic side of his career; and when ultimately he abandoned the footlights for the Almemor (finally, in this case) it was not in the long-suffering London synagogue, but in that of Jamaica.6

Famous Singers of the Great Synagogue: Myer Leoni as Carlos in The Duenna, and John Braham as Orlando

But the most famous and most melodious of the Meshorrerim of the Great Synagogue was without doubt a boy - son of Abraham "Singer" of Prosnitz, formerly also in the service of the congregation, who had died in 1779 - whom Leoni once found selling pencils in the street, adopted as his nephew, and introduced to the service of the Synagogue as his assistant. The child's name was John Abraham, better known as Braham, the phenomenal tenor - sweetest of English singers of his day and author of The Death of Nelson, long the most popular of English patriotic songs. (His first appearance on the stage as "Master Abrahams" was at Goodman's Fields theatre early in 1787, shortly after which he made his bow at Covent Garden in the benefit performance of The Duenna on behalf of Leoni.) The story goes how, one Friday night, when he appeared on the stage holding a lantern, the performance was interrupted by the voice of a coreligionist from the gallery: "Put down the candle, you Meshummad !"

There is evidence that the congregation had overstrained its strength in constructing the new Synagogue in 1766, for in the succeeding period it was faced with protracted financial difficulties. It became necessary to make a drastic reduction in expenditure. At a meeting held in the winter of 1771 in the house of Aaron Franks, the Rosh haKahal, it was determined to make cuts in all salaries.7 But this proved insufficient. In the following year, when the time came for paying Edward Holmes the balance due to him for the site in Duke's Place on which the Synagogue extension had been constructed, there was no alternative but to mortgage the place of worship to him. The sum thus raised was £1700 - £1300 being the amount due to him, and the balance of £400 representing a loan in cash at 5 per cent. (The respective roles of Jew and non-Jew in this monetary transaction is noteworthy, and perhaps nearer to type than the general picture.) Next year (Passover 1773) another expedient was tried to meet the financial difficulties: the minimum amount that had to be offered by persons summoned to the Reading of the Law on a week-day was raised to sixpence, to be distributed among various charitable objects, payment in cash being made obligatory. The responsibility for seeing that this regulation was punctually obeyed obviously devolved in great Part on the long-suffering Hazan, who was made subject to a fine of 2s. 6d. if he recited the form of benediction (Mi sheBirach) without mention of a monetary offering. By way of compensation, it was at the same time decided, so as to minimise the burden on the congregation's patience, that no more than five formulas of the sort should be recited for the same person--a usual method of ostentation at that time. (This, incidentally, was the first communal minute to be signed in English.) It was only some ten years later that the period of emergency seems to have ended.

To be sure, progress was uninterrupted even during this time of stress. One day in 1770 there was excitement in the Synagogue. A member of the congregation had produced what was found by the English-born element at least to be a positive godsend. Everyone connected with the Synagogue knew Alexander Alexander, son of Judah Leib (Levi) Alexander, who had been associated with the congregation since about 1740. A faithful Jew, he realised the need of a Hebrew printing-press in London; a native-born Londoner, he felt the lack of an English translation of the prayer-book. He set himself to fill both lacunae: and in 1770 he produced, in collaboration with Benedict Just of Halberstadt (known as B[aruch] Meyers), the first Hebrew prayer-book printed in England, accompanied by an English version. Alexander was not a great scholar: both his text and his translation leave much to be desired: but he has a permanent title to the gratitude of English Jewry for the work which he attempted, which soon found many imitators. At the end of the volume there is published an extremely interesting list of subscribers, among whom one notes many Great Synagogue worthies--Aaron, Naphtali and Moses Franks, Aaron and Asher Goldsmid, Mrs. Wolf Liepman, Mr. Isaac Polack, D.D. (the Hazan), and many others, together with Mr. Aaron Hart and Mrs. Dorothy Hart, both described as being of "Canady".

Alexander Alexander, "the printer", was admitted to membership of the Great Synagogue in 1776/7. He remained active for several years, producing a number of liturgical and other works. In due course, he set up his own printing-house, with the collaboration of his son, Levy Alexander. The works he published included a series of Yiddish pocket calendars (the first appeared in 1772) which contained full particulars of coaching-services and market-days, as well as of Jewish and public holidays. The younger Alexander remained active, publishing both in Hebrew and the vernacular (including an English grammar in rhyme) until well on in the following century: we will have occasion to return to him at a later stage.

While Alexander was at work on his prayer-book, another group of London Jews had begun a similar activity, printing, however, in Hebrew only. At their head was Moses ben Gershom (Hyams), who lived at the back of the Synagogue, in Little Duke's Place: and among the employees was a certain Jacob ben Gedaliah, whose family had embraced Judaism as proselytes. Thanks to the efforts of this group, a portly liturgy, accompanied by a Yiddish translation, appeared in 1770/1, in three quarto volumes. A Yiddish history of England, too, was announced, but was never published. The first book produced by this press is said to have been the Toledoth Jacob, by an immigrant Polish scholar named Jacob Eisenstadt (grandson of the illustrious Meir Eisenstadt) who probably preached sometimes at the Great Synagogue - a small volume comprising homiletical expositions of certain Biblical and Talmudical passages, and inculcating peculiar deference to the communal magnates, who (we are informed) were not without influence even at the English court.

Alexander found an imitator in David Levi, the erudite Whitechapel cobbler, who was one of the most remarkable characters ever produced by the Great Synagogue, and perhaps by English Jewry. He was the son of a certain Mordecai Levi, and was born in London in 1740. After failing to make a living as shoemaker, he went to the other extreme and became a hatter, meanwhile continuing his studies. In 1783 he produced, for the enlightenment of the Gentile world, A succinct account of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Jews, in which their religious principles and tenets are explained. From that date onwards, he was constantly engaged in literary work, in the intervals of trying to earn his livelihood. He produced grammars, dictionaries, apologetics, pamphlets, polemics. For years on end he was a one-man Anti-Defamation Committee, always prepared to fight with his quill whenever the good name of Jews or Judaism was impugned. His work, in making the Gentile world realise that Jews were in a position to speak to them in their own language and on their own footing, was inestimable. In addition, he produced a series of liturgical and other translations, immeasurably superior to Alexander's, which are the lineal ancestors of those used among English Jews in our own day. Yet his was a constant life of struggle for livelihood. He considered himself fortunate when towards the end of his life a group of admirers headed by the Goldsmids raised among themselves 18s. a week to defray his most urgent requirements: and it does not seem that he was ever able to afford the expense of membership of the Great Synagogue, to which his family belonged and under the auspices of which he was buried in 1801.

The Baal-Shem of London, 1708-1782 (from a painting by J. S. Copley)

Of the other notables of the Synagogue during Tevele Schiff's Rabbinate the most remarkable, though hardly the most admirable, was that curious figure, "Dr." Hayim Samuel Jacob de Falk, known as the Baal Shem of London. There is no space here to give more than the briefest outline of his career. He was born, somewhere in Eastern Europe, of a Sephardi family, was condemned to be burned as a sorcerer in Westphalia, somehow made his way to England, and from about 1742 lived in London. Here he became known as a dabbler in magic and an expert in the practical Kabbalah, who achieved remarkable results owing to his knowledge of the mystery of the Divine Name (hence his title of Baal Shem). Many stories were current concerning his extraordinary powers. He could cause a small taper to remain alight for weeks, an incantation would fill his cellar with coal,. plate left with a pawnbroker would glide back to his house. Occasionally, he paid mysterious moonlight visits to Epping Forest, where he was reported to have buried quantities of treasure. Although he arrived in London without ostensible means, he was before long in the possession of great wealth and took up his residence at a house in Wellclose Square formerly occupied by Mrs. Judith Levy, Moses Hart's affluent and eccentric daughter. Here he was waited on by nobles, aristocrats, and princes, such as the fair Marquise de la Croix, who had been instrumental in saving many Jews from the clutches of the Inquisition, and the Duc d'Orléans, who received from him the magical ring which was said to have secured his son the succession to the throne of France. Among the Jewish community it was reported how, on a certain occasion when a fire threatened to destroy the Great Synagogue, he averted the disaster by writing four Hebrew letters (no doubt constituting the Ineffable Name of God) on the doorposts.

On his first arrival he was at loggerheads with the community, which endeavoured to suppress the luxurious private synagogue that he maintained in his house, with two Readers and elaborate fittings.8 Afterwards, the ill-feeling was dispelled, for he was on terms of friendship with Rabbi Schiff, and the Goldsmid brothers themselves considered themselves honoured by his company at their table. Nevertheless, he never became a full member of the congregation; it is said that when the Wardens desired to make him a Baal Bayith (householder) of the community he refused the honour, saying that he was a householder of the entire world. His portrait, which was discovered some time since in the possession of a long-assimilated member of the Goldsmid family, is often reproduced in error for that of the more famous "Baal Shem", Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Hassidism.

"Dr." de Falk continued to enjoy a great reputation until his death, in April 1782, when he was buried in the Alderney Road cemetery, near the Rabbis of the community. His tomb, with its florid Hebrew inscription, was a place of pilgrimage for Jews of the old type until within living memory, but is no longer to be traced. He remembered the Synagogue handsomely in his will. To the Rabbi for the time-being, he left an annuity of ten guineas: to the Beth haMidrash, the same amount; and to the Synagogue itself, £100 a year. The place of worship received, too, two exquisite miniature scrolls of the law, in silver cases of the finest contemporary London workmanship, which are kept among its treasures and serve to remind the congregation on feasts and holydays of the enigmatic, bizarre character of its eighteenth-century benefactor, the reputed Baal Shem of London.9

Miniature Scrolls of Law, in silver cylinders (London, 1766-7), bequeathed by the 'Baal Shem', 1782

It is not perhaps entirely unfair to mention immediately after "Dr. de Falk" his contemporaries, Philip Jonas and Philip Breslaw (it is conceivable that the two were identical), the conjurers. The former worked specially in London, being first found in the "Angel and Crown" in Whitechapel and afterwards in the Bank Coffee-House. The latter gave performances in 1774 in the ballroom of the King's Arms, near the Royal Exchange, and after in the Marylebone Gardens: a handbill of the period boasts how "he will exhibit a variety of new magical card deceptions; particularly, he will communicate the thoughts from one person to another, after which he will perform many new deceptions with letters, numbers, dice, rings, pocket-pieces, etc." His Last Legacy, or Magical Companion (London, 1784) was long a classic of the conjuring art. It is one or the other of these two whom we find in the records of the Great Synagogue in 1772-3 under the name "Pheis Taschenspieler" (i.e. "Conjurer"), when he claimed membership-rights through his father-in-law, Mendele Levi. However, he did not succeed, as the vestry stipulated that the application could not be entertained until he had paid his debt to Isaac Polack, the Hazan, which he failed to do within the stipulated period of six months.10

At this period, too, the Synagogue numbered among its members the most distinguished of the physicians associated with it. This was Mordecai Gumpel ben Judah Leib, known in ordinary life as George or Gumperz Leviso(h)n [Schnaper], who, born on the Continent, was considered an infant genius and obtained the Rabbinical diploma when he was only fourteen years old. Afterwards, he was implicated in a domestic tragedy at Breslau, though subsequently cleared of suspicion. He embraced a medical career, came to England and, after studying under John Hunter, was appointed physician at the hospital maintained by the Duke of Portland. While here, he published several medical works in English ("An Essay on the Blood", 1776; "Epidemical Sore Throat", 1778) and in Hebrew a philosophical treatise, Maamar haTora vehaHokhma (1771--one of the first works issued from the newly-established London press) which attracted a good deal of attention and caused its author to be regarded as a dangerous religious innovator. This seems to have embroiled him with the congregational authorities; his youthful escapades were resuscitated and repeated from mouth to mouth: and the mild Aaron Franks himself had him removed from the Synagogue. He counter-attacked in an extremely rare little polemical work in Hebrew, Tokhaha Gedola ("The Great Reproof", 1775)1 in which he insinuated that, in view of recent scandals, the congregation might profitably turn its attention to something more important. A certain Judah took up the cudgels on behalf of the Synagogue in another work, Teshubat hePerushim. Almost immediately after, Levisohn accepted a call to Sweden, where he was court physician and Professor of Medicine at the University of Upsala. Later on, he settled at Hamburg, where he published many other works, and is said to have made a comfortable fortune by popularising the use of chocolate. (The statement that he was ultimately baptised is quite incorrect: he is buried in the old Jewish cemetery at Hamburg.) The congregation's relations with its physicians were indeed not always smooth: in 1799 for example we find Dr. Alexander (David b. Naphtali) formally admitted to penance after having caused general scandal by a public breach of Jewish law.

The time was now passing when the community was confined to a comparatively restricted area in the immediate neighbourhood of Duke's Place--"the Four Streets" as they were then called. The expansion was mainly in an easterly direction. The reason for this lay to a large extent in the intolerant attitude of the City authorities, who allowed no person who was not a Freeman to open a shop for retail trade and admitted no Jew to the Freedom. This, however, did not apply outside the City boundaries, beyond which, towards Whitechapel and Mile End, a considerable Jewish settlement clustered. The disreputable thoroughfare appropriately named Petticoat Lane became largely Jewish at the close of the eighteenth century and completely changed its character: and all the courts leading out of it were teeming with Jewish families. Rosemary Lane (swept away when the approaches were made to Tower Bridge) was the centre of the rag-picking confraternity, and had a minor synagogue of its own. The profession must have been more lucrative than is popularly imagined, for in 1765 there is recorded the death of a Mr. Lyons, of Rosemary Lane, worth £20,000. Topographical snobbery was as yet hardly existent. The most affluent merchants continued to live above their counting-houses in St. Mary Axe, Bishopsgate, or Broad Street, or else in the immediate neighbourhood, in the elegant new dwelling-houses (hardly inferior to those in Westminster and Mayfair) in Devonshire Square, Billiter Square, and Wellclose Square. The most fashionable neighbourhood was Goodman's Fields, which had been described by the antiquarian Strype as early as 1720 as being chiefly inhabited by prosperous Jews. Surrounding this open space were four streets of elegant private mansions--Prescott Street, Mansell Street, Lemon (Leman) Street and Ayliffe (now becoming known as Alie) Street, where the élite of the Ghetto held court. Even today, as one wanders round these thoroughfares, now dingy and neglected, the eye is caught by noble Georgian frontages, beautiful lights over the entrances, exquisite pieces of moulding, handsome bow- windows, and (through an occasional open doorway) dignified oak staircases, which make it possible to revive in the imagination those more spacious and more simple days when this was the heart of London Jewry. Nathaniel Fowler, Churchwarden of St. Mary's, Whitechapel, observed in 1795 that two out of every three empty houses in the neighbourhood were taken by Jews, because it was convenient for them to be near each other. But he did not resent it. "There are many wealthy Jews in this parish whose liberality on charitable occasions is very exemplary ", he added. They even supported Christian sectarian charities: up t0 1812, there are some half-dozen Jewish names among the subscribers to the Davenant Foundation School, founded expressly to teach the principles of the Church of England. There was a fairly considerable settlement a little further afield, in Bethnal Green, where, as we have seen, an attempt was made to set up a domestic synagogue in 1747, and where "Jews' Walk" existed in 1779. (There had been one in Chelsea in 1756.) Here, it was possible to live under almost rural conditions: in 1765, Mr. Israel Levi Solomon, of Bethnal Green, had advertised in the public press for information leading to the apprehension of those who had robbed his garden of fourteen melons.

Not far off the Great Synagogue, in the Minories, there was a traditional street market, largely frequented by Jews-especially old-clothes dealers. When public taste became more delicate, they were considered to constitute a public nuisance, and much distress was caused in the London community in January 1782, when an order was made by the Vestry of the Parish of the Holy Trinity for their stands to be removed.11 On what was called the Tenter Ground, near the Cross Keys in Goulston Street, the annual London Purim fair was held, with swings, roundabouts, Punch-and Judy shows, and stalls laden with the traditional Ghetto delicacies, "Haman's Ears" occupying the place of honour: and the Purim masqueraders would add to the hilarity in the intervals of their visits to the hospitable Ghetto aristocracy in their mansions not far away. Similar convivial scenes were witnessed on the Rejoicing of the Law, when the symbolical "bridegrooms" were escorted back to their houses with a torch-light procession. Life was hard, and for the majority it was far from luxurious: but it was at the same time colourful and intense.

As a result of the constant influx from abroad, the charitable work which the community had to undertake was on a relatively vast scale. As early as 1739, as has been mentioned, it was computed that the two small Ashkenazi synagogues in London disbursed between them no less than £1,000 per annum in beneficence. So great did the burden become that in this year it was determined that not more than 20 per cent of the total income of the congregation should be devoted to charitable purposes, as otherwise the strain on its resources would become intolerable. In 1759, it was agreed that the Hambro' Synagogue was henceforth to pay one-third of the cost of the charity distributions. It is unlikely that this arrangement survived the dispute over the Rabbinate after Hart Lyon's retirement; but later, a definite scale was laid down by the three congregations which now existed. Every destitute Jewish pauper in London could count on receiving one shilling weekly - 6d. from the Great Synagogue and the remainder from the Hambro' and New Synagogues in equal proportions. Besides this the more fortunate could hope to benefit from the charitable bequests of Isaac Franks or Lazarus Simon, and every year before Passover there was a free distribution of Matzoth to all who applied.12 The influx of the needy, not always of a high moral character, for the express purpose of living on their coreligionists, and the consequent increase in delinquency, led the Great Synagogue in 1768 to decide that henceforth they would withhold the weekly allowance from those who had left their own country without good cause. On the other hand, emigration was assisted. This gave an opening for a further abuse, and in 1758 it was decided that the charitable allowance was to be withheld from persons who had received a grant on the pretext of leaving England.

In accordance with the traditional Jewish ideal of self-supporting charity, it was preferred to put the poor in a position in which they might be able to look after themselves. Hence they would be equipped with a tiny capital or small stock-in-trade and sent to earn their living in the only callings which the intolerance of the times left fully open to them--hawking, peddling and old-clothes dealing. Those who were thus engaged formed the bulk of the communal proletariat, painfully gaining their livelihood, consolidating their positions, and ultimately becoming self-supporting, respectable, and charitable members of society. It was easy to jeer at them, and the satirists and caricaturists of the period lost no opportunity of doing so. Yet these uncouth peddlars had ideals and standards which, if different from those of their neighbours, were in some respects immeasurably superior to them. Their home lives were pure and ennobling. Every week the Sabbath came to convert their hovels into palaces illumined with a mystic light, and their hard-working wives into priestesses presiding over a religious feast. No sacrifice was too great for them as an alternative to the desecration or non-observance of Jewish laws and religious customs. They were some of them scholars, all of them lovers of scholarship, and the associations for study which they formed among themselves were even more characteristic than the charitable societies which sprang up so spontaneously and plentifully in their midst. One of these despised old-clothes men--a dependent of the Great Synagogue--has left his memoirs behind him, A Short Account of the Life and Transactions of Levi Nathan (London, 1776). It is amazing to see how this penurious, despised, misunderstood immigrant, prowling raucously round the courts of London and Westminster with his sack on his shoulder, was at the same time the founder, inspiration and leader of a society for Talmudic study.

Not all, however, were of this type. Some of the immigrants, encouraged to come to England by the fatal simplicity of obtaining passage, and finding themselves unable to earn a living when they arrived owing to the galling restrictions which prevailed, turned in desperation to dishonest practises. The problem of delinquency among the Ashkenazi Jews became serious, threatening the good name of the entire community. Instead of blinking at the facts, the authorities of the Duke's Place Synagogue faced them manfully, attempting on the one hand to cope with the problem and on the other to dissociate the Jewish community as such from the malefactors. In 1766 certain criminals who were bringing discredit on the Jewish name were formally excommunicated in the Great Synagogue, and the Wardens gave every assistance to the authorities to bring them to justice. The latter were duly appreciative, as the following interchange of correspondence shows:

Bow Street, May 25th 1766.

Sir John Fielding presents his respectful Compliments to Mr. Naphtaly Franks and Mr. Naphtaly Myers; thinks himself much obliged to them, as is the Public for the assistance they have already given to the civil power, to detect the Receivers of stolen goods, in Duke's Place and Houndsditch: and also for their laudable Declarations to continue their assistance, till the evil itself is suppressed; And Sir John Fielding is persuaded that as this practise has been carried on by a few persons only, that the countenance and protection of the respectable part of their Body to the Magistrates, in their endeavours to cause such offenders to be apprehended, will discourage this atrocious practise, benefit the public, and reflect honour on themselves.

To this, the Synagogue sent the following reply:

From the Vestry Chamber of the Great Synagogue.

May 26th 1766.


We are honoured with your letter of yesterday, and are very happy in receiving your approbation of our endeavours to detect those few infamous receivers of stolen goods, about Duke's Place and Houndsditch: wretches who are a pest to every Community.

We return you our sincere thanks for your laudable and spirited assistance on this occasion of doing public justice, and flatter ourselves, that with the assistance of the Civil Power, our perseverance will be attended with the same desirable success.

We are firmly convinced that in pursuance of this our fixed resolution, we shall receive the applause of every Jew, who is not totally ignorant of the Laws of God, the Duty of his own religion, the true regard for Public Justice, and the obedience due to the laws of this Kingdom.

We are, with the highest respect,


Your most obedient humble servants,

N. Franks

N. H. Myers

Presidents of the Great Synagogue.

Under the same vigorous direction, this policy was continued unremittingly, notwithstanding the criticisms which were offered by some purblind members of the community, who considered it unwise to recognise the existence of the abuse. The Press of the period records, for example, how a person who defrauded a certain Mr. Gibson was expelled from the Great Synagogue at this time; and this was probably not the only case. But remedial action was not enough. In 1771 there was recrudescence of crime, of particularly brutal character. On this occasion, the Duke s Place authorities were not content with excommunicating those responsible, inserting an advertisement to that effect in the newspapers, and offering a reward of £20 for assistance in apprehending them, but did their best to get to the root of the problem. It was pointed out that the free passage from abroad for all, regardless of character, was largely responsible for the regrettable state of affairs, and the Earl of Suffolk, Secretary of State, was persuaded to instruct the Postmaster General to suspend this practice. (There is extant the letter of thanks to the noble Earl, dated December 17th, 1771, written by Naphtali Hart Myers on behalf of the General Vestry of the Great Synagogue.) At the same time, the Wardens waited on the Lord Mayor, who offered a free pass to any Jew who wished to leave the country and return home. Thus, the problem of delinquency was coped with: it was swept away when economic opportunity became more ample. The courageous action of the Great Synagogue in the eighteenth century, in grappling with the problem instead of ignoring it, can be a model to later generations.13


1 There is, however, a glimpse of "Dr. Shift" at a wedding in The London Chronicle of September 2nd, 1786, in a description of a ceremony at which he officiated in the yard of the Black Bear Inn, Piccadilly. The bridegroom's name was Levy; the bride (who was escorted to the ceremony by Grimaldi, the famous clown!) was a Miss Defries.

2 Tevele Schiff and R. Meshullam Zalman figure among the authorities mentioned in connexion with the notorious case of the Cleves Bill of Divorce, the hero or villain of which, Isaac ben Eleazar Mannheim, had emigrated to London .

3 These details and others regarding the private and public activities of the London rabbis of this period are largely derived from the documents published by Dr. Charles Duschinsky in his work, The Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue (Oxford 1921).

4 His wife Telza predeceased him in 1799, and is buried, like him, in the Brady Street cemetery.

5 Some synagogal music by Leoni ("Leon Singer") and by his colleague, Abraham of Prosnitz, figures in the Hazanuth collections of Aaron Beer of Berlin: cf. Idelsohn, Jewish Music, pp. 220, 226. A gramophone recording of a superb Kaddish of his for the Ninth of Ab, from this collection, has recently been published.

6 His tombstone, in the ancient Kingston cemetery (still legible) shows that "Mr. Michael Leoni, Principal Reader of our Congregation and one of the first singers of the age" died on Sunday, November 6th, 1796.

7 The new rates were: Rabbi, £200 and coals; Hazan, £62; Shamash, £32; Wolff, Assistant Shamash, £12; Secretary, £15 (as before); Lyon the Meshorrer (Myer Leoni), £32; Abraham the Bass-singer, £12; "Morum" the door-keeper (a Jew), £21, contributed as before by individuals.

8 See below, p. 164-5.

9 Falk was not the only Cabbalist of this type in London at the time. He had a homonym, Samuel the Baal Shem, who survived him by thirteen years and may have been confused with him by some contemporaries. (The latter was buried in the "Strangers'" plot of the congregational cemetery on his death in December 1794; Jacob and Mendele, the attendants of the late Baal Shem, were also buried there, two and ten months later respectively.) Another mystic, Moses ben Nathan, designated the Baal Shem of Fürth, died here in 1775 and is buried in the Brady Street cemetery. He must have been attached to the New Synagogue, as the Great Synagogue had not yet acquired its share in this ground.

Falk was possibly the model for the sketch of a Cabbalist which appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine not long after his arrival in England. His fellow townsman and fellow-mystic, the Sabbataean R. Moses David of Podhace, came over to London in 1759 after he found life in Alcona impossible, stayed with him for some while and collaborated with him in his magical experiments. It is said that he was expelled from England with contumely.

10 It may be mentioned that Philip Breslaw added to his other feats of legerdemain that of dying twice. In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1783, p. 978, there is recorded the death at Brussels of "Mr. Breslau, the noted conjurer"; in the same periodical for 1803, p. 486, that of "Breslaw, the celebrated conjurer, at the Bull and Punch Bowl in Liverpool, aged 77. He was a native of Berlin."

11 So Jewish did the population of this parish become that before religious restrictions were removed there was a little difficulty sometimes in filling the public offices. (By 1836, however, the process had advanced so far that the Vestry appointed a Jewess as Parish Overseer, though her brother was empowered to represent her at meetings.) Reciprocal relations were good on the whole, nevertheless, and in the autumn of 1818 proxies were admitted in order to permit Jews to record their votes on one of their religious holydays.

12 In the eighteenth century, it was customary to give a dinner, at the public expense, to the Honorary Officers of the community, past and present, on the occasion of this distribution: but in 1794 it was decided to restrict this henceforth to those actually serving.

13 Naphtali Hart Myers, son of Joseph Myers, who was mainly responsible for this policy, belonged to a New York family and was descended from the Adolphuses on the female side. He died at his residence in John Street, America Square, in 1788. He married Hester, daughter of Simon Jacob Moses, of Bury Street, a pillar of the Synagogue, who died in 1764 (see above, p. 99): their son, Joseph Hart Myers, graduated in medicine at Edinburgh, being probably the first professing Jew to obtain an ordinary degree at a British university, and published a dissertation on diabetes. He was appointed physician to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in 1785 and died in 1823. For the episode of 1771, See the account in R. Leslie-Melville: Life and Work of Sir John Fielding (London, 1935), p. 259 ff.

A more pleasing episode of external relations during Tevele Schiff's Rabbinate was collaboration with the Oxford scholar, Dr. Kennicott, while he was engaged in his great work on the text of the Hebrew Bible. There are extant the letters of recommendation to Jewish scholars abroad which he received in 1770 from the two senior London communities, the Great Synagogue's being signed by the Rosh haKahal Aaron Franks and the Warden Aaron Goldsmid, as well as by the Rabbi himself.

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