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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XIV



THE French Revolution and the long war with France inevitably led to an anti-alien agitation in England. As always in times of disturbance the Jews were foremost among the sufferers. In the winter of 1792/31 an Aliens Act was passed through Parliament, giving the government strict control over the movement of foreigners in the country. While it was under discussion, the Wardens of the Portuguese Synagogue ordered their acting Rabbi to preach a sermon insisting upon the duty of Jews to show their devotion to the King and Constitution: and the Wardens of the Great Synagogue were informed of this in the hope that the example would be followed, as doubtless it was. But the anti-foreign agitation did not slacken. Five and a half years later, in July 1798, the Wardens of the City Synagogues were summoned before the Lord Mayor, who informed them that he had been ordered to procure a return of all aliens in the City within three weeks, and Jews not conforming to these instructions would be liable to imprisonment and transportation.

In consequence of this, a meeting of the Honorary Officers of the Ashkenazi synagogues was held at the Anti-Gallican Coffee House shortly after, under the chairmanship of Abraham Goldsmid, and it was resolved to draw up a register of all members, seat-holders, past seat-holders and their servants. It is a pity that these lists, which must have contained much useful historical and especially genealogical information, are no longer to be traced. This ill wind nevertheless blew some persons good: for the Secretary of the Great Synagogue received £10 for his work, his assistant £6, and the door-keeper £5 5s.

When after a brief truce war again broke out with Napoleon in 18021, and volunteers were enrolled throughout the country to meet the threatened invasion, Jews in large numbers offered their services as a matter of course. It is said that on one occasion, when a general review of the newly-enrolled force was held in Hyde Park, George III was very much struck at the number of animal names (Bear, Wolf, Lion, and so on) in one of the East End regiments, largely Jewish in composition. At the time of their enrolment, however, there had been a certain difficulty. On October 19th, a solemn fast had been observed, large numbers of volunteers paraded the City, and ten regiments went to Church for Divine service. The corps who had not already taken the oath did so now, and three hundred Jews, of good family, were among their number. A contemporary news-sheet gives an account of their difficulty:

By an order from their High Priest they were prohibited from attending in our churches during the time of Divine Service. The High Priest, however, expressed his highest concurrence to their taking the oaths of fidelity and allegiance to our king and country. These gentlemen accordingly took the oaths, either upon the drilling-grounds of their respective corps, or in the vestry-room of the churches, as circumstances required. They were sworn upon the Book of Leviticus instead of the New Testament.

The call for service continued: and on August 15th, 1803, Rabbi Hirschell - not long since arrived in England - preached in the Great Synagogue on the duty of taking up arms in defence of the country, though insisting at the same time that the ritual precepts of Judaism (such as the observance of the Sabbath) should not be neglected save in emergency.

The services of Jews were not confined to the home front. There is ample evidence that they figured to a far greater extent than has hitherto been imagined in the armed forces of the crown overseas. Thus, a member of the Goldsmid family, later a Major-General, fought as a cornet at Waterloo and had two horses shot under him; while another, Lieutenant in the 58th regiment, died when his ship went down with all hands on the way to Canada in 1814. In order to obtain the King's commission, they had to abandon or conceal their faith. In the rank and file, however, this did not apply - not, at least, as a legal necessity - and a number of Ashkenazi Jews are known to have served both in the army and navy. Of this, a curious record is preserved among the muniments of the Great Synagogue. For the purposes of the ceremony of Halitzah, it was customary to record the name of the eldest brother of the bridegroom at the time of his marriage, which was generally entered at the back of the Ketubah. The details given are sometimes very illuminating. "His brothers are at sea, in the King's ships", runs one entry; and another (dated 1809, and referring in all probability to the Peninsular War), "His brother is on the Expedition".

But the War period was not, in the days before the instruments of destruction had attained their present diabolical perfection, one of unrelieved anxiety, and during these years there took place some of the most picturesque episodes in the Great Synagogue's history. On Friday, April 10th, 1801, the sacred place was visited by the Duke of Gloucester, the King's brother (whose Duchess is said to have been a niece of Hannah Norsa, the famous Jewish actress). This was the first time that a member of the Royal family is recorded to have been present in a London synagogue since the seventeenth century, when the future Queen Anne was entertained by the Spanish and Portuguese community. The memory of this episode was, however, overwhelmed by another eight years later. The Goldsmid brothers were on very intimate terms with the Royal Dukes, the sons of George III, who enjoyed their company and their hospitality. (There was one classical occasion when the Duke of Sussex drove back from Abraham's house at Morden in the same carriage with Hymon the famous pastry-cook, disguised for the journey as a distinguished foreigner.) One day, in the spring of 1809, the Wardens of the Great Synagogue were surprised and flattered to receive the following letter, from one of the most respected members:

No: 27, Finsbury Square,

March 30 1809.

To the Gentlemen Parnassim of the Great Synagogue, Messrs. Samuel Joseph, Asher Goldsmid and Joseph Cohen.

Gentlemen :

Their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of Cambridge and Cumberland having signified to me their intention of visiting the Synagogue on Friday evening, the 14th of April next, pray give me leave to ask if it will be agreeable to you, gentlemen, to receive them on that day, which will oblige him who has the honour to subscribe himself,

Your most obedient and humble servant,

Abraham Goldsmid.

Abraham Goldsmid, 1756-1810

Great preparations were now made in Duke's Place. A special order of service was compiled, with verses composed for the occasion by Michael Joseph, the communal poetaster, otherwise known as Meir Königsberg (some copies were printed on silk for distribution among the guests of honour). The Rabbi and Wardens went out to greet the visitors, who were accompanied by their brother, the Duke of Sussex, later to make himself known as a student of Hebrew and champion of Jewish rights. Their path, as they alighted from their carriages, was strewn with flowers by a bevy of beautiful children (one of them was Simeon Oppenheim, subsequently Secretary to the congregation). As they entered, at the close of the afternoon service, their advent was greeted by the chanting by a specially-augmented choir of a florid introductory stanza, which had been rendered into English verse:

Open wide the gates for the princely train

The Heav'n-blessed offspring of our King

Whilst our voices raise the emphatic strain

And God's service devout we sing.

Within the sacred precincts, new hangings of crimson velvet attracted attention. They had been presented for the occasion by one Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the rising young financier not long since arrived in London from Frankfort via Manchester, and already well known in financial circles. Between the hymns for the inauguration of the Sabbath and the evening service there was interposed a choral rendering of the Prayer for the Royal family - "He Who giveth salvation unto Kings" - followed by Michael Joseph's ode, which concluded in a highly patriotic strain:

Raise, raise the voice; let congregations sing

With elevated shout, long live the King.

For many years after, down almost to the close of the century, London Jews used to tell of this occasion, and old men who were then members of the choir would hum the tunes which they had sung on that historic night. It is better to allow a contemporary journalist to describe the scene as it appeared to the outside world:

Yesterday, at half past six o'clock, the Dukes of Cumberland, Sussex and Cambridge attended the Great Synagogue in Duke's Place to witness the Hebrew form of worship. The preparation made to receive the princes evidenced the loyalty of the Jewish people, and the spectacle was magnificent and most solemn. The Synagogue was most suitably decorated on the occasion. The seats on each side were raised and the pulpit in the centre was adorned by crimson and gold. A space between the pulpit and the ark was appropriated to the Royal Dukes and the Nobility, who stood on a rich platform with four beautiful Egyptian chairs and stands for their books, flowers, etc. The Synagogue was brilliantly illuminated by chandeliers. The High Priest, Rabbi Hirschell, in his sacerdotal habit displayed unusual magnificence: he was dressed in a robe of white satin of considerable value and ordered expressly for him by Abraham Goldsmid, Esq. The Royal Dukes arrived in the carriage of Mr. Goldsmid, and their own carriages followed with several ladies of distinction. The singing was excellent and the Royal Dukes appeared much gratified by the Choruses. When the Ark was opened to take out the Five Books of Moses the Princes were conducted by Mr. Goldsmid to view the interior, at which they expressed great satisfaction, the structure being grand and beautiful. The galleries were crowded with beautiful Jewesses who attracted much the attention of the Royal Party. After the service, the Royal Dukes drove to the mansion of Mr. A. Goldsmid, where a sumptuous entertainment was provided, which was followed by a grand concert.

Order of Service on Visit of Royal Dukes, 1809

There is an interesting pictorial souvenir of this flamboyant episode. Rowlandson published a satirical caricature on the event. The three princes are shown with dummy heads inscribed " Cumberland Lead", "Cambridge Buttur" [sic] and " Suffolk [sic] Cheese ", and are being received by five individuals intended to represent Jewish ministers of religion, bearing books and a lighted candelabrum, who greet them with the words: "'Welcome, thrice Welcome Bretheren to the Synagogue".2

Caricature on Visit of the Royal Dukes, 1809

The visit of the Royal Dukes was not the only excitement in the Great Synagogue in 1809. A short while after that event a mishap occurred which would have been more than unfortunate had it coincided with the other episode. In the Radical Sunday newspaper, The News (published at 8d. per copy, of which 3d. was paid as newspaper tax!), we read in the issue of July 30th, 1809:

The inhabitants of Duke's Place were some evenings since much alarmed by a loud crash, which was distinctly heard in the Synagogue. On examination it was found that the large chandelier had fallen from the ceiling and done considerable damage to the benches &c. beneath it. Had this accident occurred during the time of worship, the consequences might have been fatal, as the chandelier was one of considerable weight, having 400 burners.

This was, in every sense, an internal matter. But there was much external excitement at the time as well, owing to what was termed the "O.P. Riots". The new Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, had recently been rebuilt at enormous expense, and the price of seats had been increased. In consequence, for some weeks on end, disorders took place at every performance; there were free fights in the auditorium, and little could be heard by those who had the courage to attend except a persistent clamour for the Old Prices, or "O.P.". In desperation, the management engaged a number of bruisers to tackle the ringleaders. Of these, the most redoubtable were the famous Jewish pugilists, Daniel Mendoza and Samuel Elias, generally known as Dutch Sam and probably a Great Synagogue boy. "On several evenings," we read in the contemporary Press, "the disapprobation of the people at the presence of these sons of Israel has been humorously expressed by cries from every part of the house of old clothes, hare skins or rabbit skins, oranges and lemons, rollers for the hair, any bad shillings &c. &c." Among those responsible for the disorder, too, Jews were prominent. In the end, the Synagogue itself had to take action and in October, The News published the following notice:

The Rev. Solomon Hirschell, High Priest of the Jewish Synagogue, has caused 100 itinerant Jews to be struck off the charity list, for six months, for making a noise at the Covent Garden Theatre; he has also warned them of excommunication, in case they should be guilty of the like again.

There was another time in the same year when the much-enduring Rabbi came into the public eye. It was on an occasion when a certain Mr. John Isaacs, who had been expelled from the New Synagogue for misconduct, forced his way past the bar and assaulted the beadle who tried to keep him back. He was prosecuted at the London sessions and found guilty: for (as was pointed out) no matter what religious persuasion was in question, or what doctrine was held forth, it was equally to be protected with the established church, while tolerated by the mild government of the country. The Court, we are told in the newspaper reports, was crowded with Jewish people: and "the Jewish High Priest, dressed in his robes, attended by several of the Elders, sat on the Bench."

Another event associated with the Great Synagogue at this time illustrated the growing cordiality between Jews and Christians in London. On October 7th, 1812, there was celebrated under the auspices of the Synagogue in the London Tavern the marriage of Joseph Abrahams, one of the earliest Anglo-Jewish attorneys, and Elizabeth Myers, daughter of a wealthy fishmonger. Among the guests, to the spiteful amusement of some contemporary caricaturists, was the Lord Mayor of London. The Morning Post reported the proceedings at length:

The ceremony was performed by the High Priest of the Jews with great and interesting solemnity. Soon after the marriage, dinner was announced, at which the Lord Mayor presided with that affability and dignity which distinguished him upon all occasions. As soon as the cloth was removed, his Lordship, in a very happy manner, called the attention of the company to the occasion of their meeting and gave for the first toast - "Health and Happiness to the Bride and Bridegroom". His Lordship expressed great delight at finding himself at the head of so numerous a party of Jews and Christians met together in friendship upon so happy an occasion.

These were rare interludes of colour in a protracted period of stress, which affected the Jews no less than their neighbours. Special services in the Synagogue (the rituals for which were usually printed) faithfully reflect every phase of national anxiety and national glory in those crowded years. Hart Lyon had preached at special services of intercession in London as long back as 1759/60. But the earliest held at the Great Synagogue of which there is definite indication is that of February 11th, 1757, "in Pursuance of His Majesty's proclamation for a general fast and humiliation". The order of service on this occasion was published for use "in the Jews' Synagogues in London"; it was not, therefore, like earlier examples, for the Sephardim only, and was presumably recited in the Great Synagogue too. In George III's eventful reign, such services were held at frequent intervals. Thus a newspaper-cutting records how on November 15th, 1788

...at the great Jews' Synagogue, St. James's, Duke's Place, after ordinary service on Saturday evening, prayers were offered up by a most respectable audience for the health of our most gracious sovereign. The service was as follows: The reader of the Synagogue said the blessing for the offering for his Majesty's speedy recovery, when every one present offered according to their abilities; after which the Psalms were chanted by the High Priest and the congregation in alternate verses. The first letters of the verses from the word Melech, King. The Ark being opened, the Priest delivered, in a most solemn manner, the ... prayer composed by him for the occasion.

Six months later (March 1789) the congregation could meet in a happier atmosphere:

At the great Jews' Synagogue, St. James's, Duke's Place, on Saturday last, after reading the law, a public Thanksgiving was read by a numerous and respectable congregation, for the happy restoration of his Majesty's health. The service was as follows: First, the reader and Congregation, with the children of the charity schools, chaunted the 107th Psalm. After which a form of Thanksgiving, composed by the High Priest, Rabbi. David Shiff, was solemnly read; of which the following is an exact translation; - "Altho' our mouths were filled with song as the sea, it is not in our power sufficiently to thank and praise the Lord our God, and the God of our Fathers, for all the miracles and wonders which he has wrought for us from the time that he was pleased to make choice of us from among all nations; he brought us into a desirable and goodly land; and after that he caused us to be removed from thence, carried [us] into captivity, and scattered us to the uttermost corners of the earth, and the isles of the sea, for our manifold sins and transgressions; yet he was pleased to inspire the hearts of the Kings and Princes in whose dominions we dwelt, with benevolence, by extending their mercy, grace and favour unto us, so that we dwell safely under the shadow of their wings; for all which favours we are not ungrateful, but in return, do continually offer up our prayers and supplications to the Supreme Being for their peace and welfare. And, on this present day, will we give great thanks and praise unto God, for that he hath been graciously pleased to bring us forth from darkness unto light, in that he was entreated of us by our prayers, and hath sent a perfect cure from the highest Heaven unto our Sovereign Lord, and pious King George the Third, (whose glory he shall exalt) and hath enabled him to resume the reins of government, so as to be able to govern his people with mercy, kindness, and paternal tenderness, as in time past; for which we thus thankfully acknowledge the Lord's goodness. And now, with our hands spread forth unto our Father, who is in heaven, we pray, that our Lord the King may thus continue in health, may he never know sickness or pain any more, but [to] spend his days in peace and happiness, and enjoy a good old age. In his days and in ours may Judah and Israel be saved, and dwell in peace and safety. Amen.

Thanksgiving Service on Royal Escape, 1795

In the following April, David Levi, the erudite hat-maker of Mile End and scholar-in-ordinary to the community, composed the "Form of prayer and thanksgiving for the happy restoration of His Majesty's health, to be read in the Great Synagogue" (though on this occasion, it seems that this title was arrogated by the rival place of worship in Magpie Alley), and on April 13th, 1793, a special service was held on the occasion of the public fast ordered by the King in view of the parlous state of public affairs. A dramatic, and nearly tragic event of 1795 evoked the " Form of prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God for His Providential Care in the preservation of the King's Majesty from the late outrageous and desperate attempt against his person, as he passed to the Parliament House, on Thursday, the twenty-ninth day of October." The triumphant news of the Battle of the Nile has its echo in the "Form of Prayer, Praise, Thanksgiving and Laud; to be chanted in the German Jews' Synagogues in London... on Thursday the 29th day of November 1798, being... the day that His Majesty our gracious Sovereign... commanded to give thanks and praise to Almighty God who is tremendous in works... for the great success of Admiral Nelson; his officers, pilots and seamen on board the ships of our Sovereign Lord the King." The restoration of peace by the Treaty of Amiens, and the subsequent reopening of hostilities, are reflected in a "Command Thanksgiving", and "Psalms read at a public fast", and "Form of Prayer for the success of the British arms". The great victory of Trafalgar was celebrated by an identical service at all the London synagogues, and we have, in English, Rabbi Solomon Hirschell's sermon preached in celebration of the "success of His Majesty's Fleet under Lord Nelson, off Trafalgar"--the first address delivered in the Great Synagogue to be published. It breathed, according to the Gentleman's Magazine, "a strain of true piety, a great loyalty and universal benevolence": and it ended with an appeal on behalf of the Patriotic Fund, which had recently been inaugurated. On this occasion, too, another member of the community, Nathan Isaac Vallentine, of Breslau (father of the publisher) produced in Hebrew and English an original composition, Mishbere Yam, "the discourse of the three sisters, respecting the fall and murder of Admiral Nelson".

"Chair of Elijah", 1809 (cushions, 1844)

October 29th, 1809, marked the beginning of George III's jubilee year, for it was on that date in 1760 that he had ascended the throne. This Biblical celebration was celebrated in a Biblical spirit. The remission of debts in the fiftieth year was not overlooked, and the Great Synagogue, in common with other Jewish congregations, raised a subscription for the fund for the relief and discharge of persons who in accordance with the harsh practice at the time had been imprisoned for small debts. A special service was moreover held in the Synagogue on the great day, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. A Hebrew prayer, specially composed for the occasion by the Rabbi, and translated into English by Joshua van Oven, was recited: and an ode celebrating the anniversary was sung by a trained choir. This collection of course was not the only one of these years. Subscriptions were also raised among the members on other occasions when an appeal was made to the generosity of the public, as for example for the relief of the devastations of famine in Sweden, for the sufferers through the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, for the maintenance and assistance of English prisoners of war in France, and after the final victory - duly celebrated by a special service - in aid of the newly-established Waterloo Fund.3 The first year of peace was clouded by the tragic death of Princess Charlotte, the Prince Regent's daughter and heiress-presumptive to the throne. The congregation, on the occasion of the Memorial Service on Kislev 10th, 1817, was clothed in deep mourning and we have the "Prayer and psalms for the day of grief, consecrated by the Congregation of German Jews in London and throughout England, to pour out their complaint before the Lord, on the day of burial of H.R.H. the Princess Charlotte": on which occasion the learned Hyman Hurwitz (master of the fashionable Jewish school at Highgate) produced "Mourn the Bright Rose': A Hebrew Dirge... chaunted in the Great Synagogue, St. James's Place, on the day of the funeral of our Beloved Princess," which was sung to the tune of a famous Ninth of Ab elegy and translated into English verse by no less a person than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.4 And the end of the long reign of George III, with all its triumphs and its disappointments, was marked by "Prayer and Psalms for the day of assembly devoted to mourning by the Congregation of German Jews... The day of burial of King George III." A fresh era was now to open.

Poem on funeral of Princess Charlotte, 1817


1 The control of foreigners was renewed with the hostilities. The London Chronicle of December 28th, 1803, contains an order from Mr. Secretary Yorke to the effect that all aliens desiring certificates were to be referred to the Aliens Office in Crown Court, with the exception of Jews, who were to apply at their synagogues.

2 This is not the only caricature in which Abraham Goldsmid and the Synagogue are associated. In association with the House of Baring, he contracted in the following year for the Government Loan of £14,000,000 (it was his last great operation, as he died, by his own hand, not long after). Cruickshank commemorated this in a drawing of the interior of the Great Synagogue, with a figure (intended for Goldsmid) reading from a book in front of the congregation. This rather spiteful effort, published anonymously, is entitled "Devotion in Duke's Place--or Contractors returning Thanks for a Loan".

3 At the time of the proclamation of peace Rabbi Hirschell was staying in Brighton, at a house in King's Road. The illumination which he displayed on this occasion--a large tree with four branches representing Austria, Prussia, Russia and France, united together at the root by England, and surrounded by Scriptural quotations in Hebrew and English--was exhibited at the Anglo-Jewish Historical exhibition of 1887.

4 This is the wording of the title-page of the edition with the musical accompaniment: the plate facing this page reproduces that of the ordinary edition.


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