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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XIII



ON December 17th, 1791, Rabbi David Tevele Schiff was gathered to his people, after having occupied the Rabbinate for twenty-seven years. He was buried on the following day in the old burial-ground in Mile End, in immediate proximity to R. Aaron Hart and the founders of the congregation. His funeral was imposing. The Bevis Marks Synagogue was represented by its acting Haham, the three Dayanim, .and five members of the Mahamad, while all the Ashkenazi congregations sent their representatives. The Rabbi's pious son, Moses Schiff, perpetuated his memory by arranging for the publication of his responsa, sermons, and expositions, under the title Leshon Zahab, but by the time the book at last appeared (Offenbach, 1822) he had himself been dead for six years. The Great Synagogue still has in use another memorial to its former Rabbi: a heavily-decorated silver Laver and Basin for the use of the Cohanim, presented by Moses Schiff in 1806, to the acquisition of which (according to legend) the Frankfort community had contributed. On Moses Schiff's own death, childless, in 1816, he bequeathed £458 to the Synagogue, the income to be distributed every Passover to "ten worthy men having wives and children, among whom there ought to be some learned men, to purchase therewith meat and wine fit for the service of the two nights of Passover." Thus, the memory of the family of Rabbi David Tevele Schiff is kept alive in London to the present day.

Moses Myers, 1759-1804. Rabbi of New Synagogue. Acting Chief Rabbi 1792-1802 (from a crayon portrait in the New Synagogue)

The condition of foreign affairs made it difficult for the community to send abroad for a new Rabbi at this time. In 1794 indeed they made their requirements known, and various applications for the post were received. But they were financially exhausted by the expense of the new building, so recently constructed. Accordingly, they seem to have seized avidly on the opportunity of economy. Instead of appointing a new incumbent to the post, it decided to utilise when necessary the services of the Rabbi of the New Synagogue, with which body relations were now on a cordial footing. Moses Myers (Moses ben Meir Pollack, in Hebrew) is little more than a name to us, though a crayon-portrait in the Vestry Room of the New Synagogue gives us an idea of his appearance. He was born in Holland about 1759, and must have been quite young when he took up his position in England: there are extant a couple of orders of service which he composed: and he died on April 25th, 1804 - it is said as the result of a seizure brought on through the excitement of having to give evidence in a Court of Law about the validity of a marriage. In the internal affairs of the Great Synagogue he does not seem to have played much part, though he presumably officiated on those occasions when his presence was necessary, and sometimes gave discourses. In the Great Synagogue itself, precedence was given to R. Zalman Ansell (father of Moses Ansell, later Secretary of the Congregation) who served as head of its Beth Din.

The Synagogue from Duke's Place in the early nineteenth century (from a wash drawing in the Jewish Museum, London)

Two or three years before Moses Myers' death, the Great Synagogue had again begun to look about for a new Rabbi. Certain members of the community who were in touch with their co-religionists in Berlin heard golden opinions regarding the youngest son of the Rabbi of that place, Hirschel Lewin, whom England remembered as Hart Lyon, and who had died in the summer of 1800. The person indicated was Solomon (known as Solomon Hirschell), Rabbi of Prenzlau in Prussia, who had presented himself as a candidate in 1794. He had been born, as it happened, in London, in 1761, during his father's brief but eventful pastorate, and was not quite three years old when the family left for Halberstadt in the spring of 1764. This geographical accident of birth is said to have proved decisive. It was on Sunday, June 3rd, 1802, that the election took place, R. Solomon receiving 62 votes against 18 cast for R. Aryeh Loeb of Rotterdam, and only 3 for R. Zevi Hirsch of Krotoschin. The patent of appointment in the traditional style (Mikhtab Rabbanuth) was drawn up immediately after. The London press recorded the transaction in characteristic fashion. "The Congregation of German Jews in London," observed The Gentleman's Magazine, " have elected, after a vacancy of ten years, a High Priest of their nation... The choice has fallen on the Rev. Dr. Solomon Hart."1 It was true that at this stage Rabbi Solomon did not know a word of English, and that his acquaintance with the language was regrettably defective to his last day. He nevertheless enjoys the distinction of having been the only English-born Chief Rabbi to the present time.2 The connexions with London of the family of the new incumbent had not been entirely broken off since Hart Lyon's retirement, upwards of thirty years before. Solomon Hirschell had a brother, Saul, perhaps more learned and certainly more creative than he, who became Rabbi of Frankfort-on-Oder. He found himself in sympathy with those followers of Moses Mendelssohn who desired to bring about a readjustment of Judaism to the conditions of the day. Whatever might be thought about his ideals, his methods were certainly open to question. He expounded his opinions in a work, Mitzpeh Jekuthiel, written under the pseudonym of Obadiah bar Barukh of Poland, in which he violently assaulted Rabbi Raphael Cohen of Hamburg, a universally respected figure. This he followed up with a collection of ingeniously-forged responsa, Besamim Rosh, mainly attributed to Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel, in which the authority of that great scholar of the thirteenth century was fraudulently enlisted on behalf of the Mendelssohnian school. The two works created a furore in Rabbinical circles in Germany. Saul Berlin (as he was called) was compelled to give up his position, and to escape the storm made his way to London. Here he died contrite and penitent (as his will shows) on November 16th, 1794, and was buried with great solemnity in the old cemetery of the Great Synagogue, which out of compliment to his father and his brother embodied his name in the list of its departed Rabbis.

It was eight years after this that Solomon Hirschell, having received a grant of £70 to cover the expense of his journey, arrived in England to begin his duties. Though he is said to have had a rooted objection to sitting for his portrait, several are extant, executed at various points in his career. He was a particularly fine-looking man - over six feet in height, with handsome features and an impressive manner: and, as he went through the streets of London, imposingly dressed in the Eastern European fashion, he attracted a great deal of attention. He was a man of ready wit, and stories are still told illustrating this. It is said that he was once walking in the East End, when he passed a couple of non-Jewish women, who turned round to look after him. Hearing some remark pass between them, he asked the meshores or attendant, who always accompanied him, what they were saying. "They are remarking what a fine figure of a man your Reverence is," he was told. "What experts!" retorted the Rabbi, in homely Yiddish. "I can reduce a wealthy man to poverty very quickly," he used to say. "It is enough for me to ask him for £20 for a needy family--he can never afford it." Another anecdote related to an occasion when, on his way to synagogue wearing his long silk Sabbatical robe, he was jostled by some hooligans. A Jewish prize-fighter who was passing rescued him from them, and the Rabbi took his arm and walked with him to service. Critics sneered at this lowering of his dignity; but from that day on the prize-fighter became a regular synagogue attendant. Long after Hirschell's death, London Jews of the old school would speak of the impressive manner in which he used to conduct the Neilah service in the Great Synagogue on the conclusion of the Day of Atonement, notwithstanding a voice that no flattery could describe as melodious. He was proud of his English birth. The story goes that on one occasion during a Parliamentary election he went in a sedan-chair to record his vote, triumphantly informing the incredulous returning officer that he had been born in Cock and Hoop Yard, Houndsditch.

Solomon Hirschell, Rabbi of the Great Synagogue and Chief Rabbi, 1802-1842 (from an engraving)

The pastor who was to preside over the great period of transition in the Anglo-Jewish community belonged essentially to the old school, yet his intellectual grasp was such as to enable him to understand the point of view of the new. To the end of his days he was a student, immersing himself perpetually in the traditional lore, but at the same time is said to have had a profound grasp of mathematics. His community, and many outside the community, considered that his attainments warranted an academic degree which, in the circumstances of the time, he could never have attained: and he was known almost universally, with no real title to that distinction, as "Dr." Hirschell. The high esteem that he enjoyed in the eyes of contemporaries is shown by the manner in which his personality bridged over the gaps that still divided the various sections of the London community. Though he was appointed by the Great Synagogue alone, as their own spiritual head, his authority was recognised (at least after Rabbi Moses Myers' death, so soon after his arrival) by the two other Ashkenazi congregations in London, as well as by those in the provinces; and, though that position had as yet no juridical existence, he was universally recognised as the Chief Rabbi, being the first unquestioned incumbent of the office.

The Great Synagogue, however, remained his official seat and the place of his public utterances. It knew him as a learned and eloquent preacher. Few specimens of his pulpit oratory have survived, but a Gentile writer, William Hamilton Reid, is our authority for knowing that his sermons frequently dwelt on the duties of universal toleration. He generally spoke in Yiddish, but not always; it is on record, for example, that on the occasion of the funeral of Nathan Mayer Rothschild in the Great Synagogue's burial-ground in Mile End, in the presence of the representatives of many foreign powers and the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of London, his address was in English. But though driven by circumstances to make use of other tongues, the Rabbi's predilection must have been Hebrew, for his official communications to the Wardens of the London Synagogues were always in that language. Then, as now, one of the great religious problems of the community was that of Sabbath observance. Very shortly after his appointment, at the end of 1802, Hirschell was associated with the new Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese community, Raphael Meldola, in a declaration regarding the maintenance of the sanctity of the Seventh Day.

The devoted Rabbi had to put up with some spirited opposition from certain members of his flock, who laid claim to greater scholarship than his. The most vociferous was without doubt Levy Alexander, the son of the earliest Anglo-Jewish typographer, who carried on his father's professions of printer, publisher and translator of the Jewish liturgy. It happened that the Rabbi favoured the rival production of a certain E. Justin, who showed his gratitude by adorning his publication by way of frontispiece with a portrait of his patron--a curious and (as would seem to the present day) highly unorthodox embellishment of a liturgical work. This action of Rabbi Hirschell's gave rise to a prolonged polemic. Alexander assailed him in season and out, moderately and immoderately, through every channel available to him. He asserted that what he termed "The Opposition Mahzor" was replete with errors, which reflected the ignorance of the Reverend Gentleman who had authorised it. He discovered, to his joy, an error in the published calendar, the responsibility for which he ascribed to the same source. When the Rabbi went to see a balloon-ascent one Saturday, he accused him of public desecration of the Sabbath. Horticultural operations in the old Beth Hayim inspired a separate pamphlet: The Axe Laid to the Root; or lgnorance and Superstition evident in the character of the Rev. S. Hirschell, High Priest of the Jews in England, in several letters to him on occasion of his having ordered the trees to be felled in the old burial-ground at Mile End Road--an egregious production which was enlarged, though certainly not adorned, by a scurrilous portrait of his subject. To be sure, Alexander did not confine his attention to the Ashkenazi element - especially when there was the opportunity of having an incidental tilt at his principal enemy: in 1814 for example he advertised: A Critique of the Hebrew Thanksgiving Prayers which were said... on Thursday the 7th of July... for the happy Restoration of Peace, in which the stupidity of the Rev. Raphael Meldola will be clearly shown... with an anecdote on the humorous sermon delivered by the Rev. Solomon Hirschell... High Priest for the Occasion. He reached the climax of audacity with a stroke of polemic genius. He was at this time engaged in producing a new translation of the prayer-book, which was issued in parts. He had the curious inspiration of continuing his attacks on the wrappers of the fascicules as they appeared, sometimes in doggerel verse. The worshippers were thus given the opportunity of conning these amusing scurrilities in the Synagogue itself, under the Rabbi's very nose.

A more significant controversy than that with Levy Alexander had as its protagonist a scholarly artist and engraver named Solomon (Yom-tob) Bennett, a native of Eastern Europe, who had learned his craft in Germany and came to England in 1799. In 1815 a certain Polish Hebraist of considerable attainments, Solomon Jacob (Shalom) Cohen, who was trying to establish a model Hebrew school in England, produced a much-needed educational work, Elements of Faith for the use of Jewish youth, of both sexes, which was translated into English by Joshua van Oven, and for some time had a considerable vogue. The volume appeared under Hirschell's patronage. It happened that a little time before Bennett had published a somewhat crude portrait of the Rabbi, which had proved a drug on the market and involved him in a loss of £100, in consequence of which the unhappy artist apparently had to go to prison for debt. He held Hirschell responsible for this, alleging that the latter nursed a grudge against him because of a quarrel with his father in Berlin years before. With the publication of The Elements of Faith, Bennett saw his opportunity. In a Hebrew work, Tene Bikkurim ("A Collection of Rabbinical Discussions and Opinions", London, 1816?) he accused the Rabbi of having given his approbation to a work which, far from containing the elements of belief, inculcated the principles of disbelief. A certain Meir (Moses) Rintel, one of the Shochetim, took up the cause of the Rabbi in his Minchath Kenauth (London, 1817), and before long the controversy spread to the Continent. Bennett now appealed to the less learned in an English pamphlet, which rivalled Alexander's publications in scurrility: The Present Reign of the Synagogue of Duke's Place Displayed in a Series of Critical, Theological and Rabbinical Discussions on a Hebrew Pamphlet (London, 1818). From this work, we obtain a highly unflattering picture of the "Proud Pontiff" and his circle, as seen through the eyes of a disappointed foreigner: how he "formed prosecutions and plans with those who cringe under his government to obstruct all intercourse among our nation": how "one wretched hireling Mr. Muday was employed to ruminate the library of the Medrash", the counter-attack on Bennett being based on the results of these researches and "the extensive closets of a Rabbinical library, which is only in the possession of R. Solomon Hirschell (if not in his head)": and how he depended at every turn on the Christian philo-Semite, Thomas Witherby, with Dr. van Oven, Michael Joseph "the poet of Duke's Place", and Meir Rintel "the poultry-man", whom he alleged to be "Solomon Hirschell's Hebrew and English writers" and "the active part of his government". But these opinions were those of jaundiced individuals: the veneration that the Rabbi enjoyed in his community, the memory of which is not dead even now, presents a very different picture.

Kiddush Cup, with portrait of Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell (presented by him to J. Solomon, 1802)

London Jewry was meanwhile expanding. Among the well-to-do immigrants who arrived in England in the middle of the eighteenth century had been a certain Wolf Liepman, who had been settled for some time in St. Petersburg and had been appointed a Councillor of State by the Czar. He attached himself to the Great Synagogue, but his personal affairs made it necessary for him to live in Westminster, in Great Pulteney Street. Here he formed a minyan in his house, probably in the year 1768. On his death in 1773, those had formerly attended service here joined forces with a charitable society (Hebra Kadisha shel Gemilluth Hassadim) which had been formed by the poorer Jews of the Westminster district - mainly tailors and embroiderers - at least twelve years before, and a room was taken in Bedford Row, Strand, for use as a synagogue; in 1781, this was removed to Denmark Court, where a more adequate place of worship was opened in 1797. This was the beginning of the Westminster, or Western Synagogue - the first and for many years the only metropolitan congregation outside the City. It was, however, dependent upon the existing communities. According to the regulations, no person was to be permitted to give an address in the Synagogue without authorisation from the Rabbi of the Duke's Place Shool, who himself came down sometimes to attend service. On one occasion, the accounts record an offering of 12s. 6d. made by "the Ab-Beth-Din of our community"; on another, the expenses for a coach when he and his attendant and the Shochetim went to Westminster to inspect the local arrangements. The Rabbi's writ (unlike that of the Lord Mayor) ran also outside the City area. He could send a messenger, when he desired it, to make a proclamation in the synagogue, and the congregation felt obliged to reward the great man's representative with a gratuity of half a crown.

The dependence of the Westminster congregation on the City was not confined to the spiritual sphere. The old objection to the establishment of a secessionist body, which would weaken the existing congregation both materially and morally, still prevailed. The new community was moreover kept in subordination by the fact that it was too poor to afford a cemetery of its own, and had to come to some arrangement regarding the burial of those affiliated to it. Accordingly, when the Synagogue in Denmark Court was dedicated in 17971 a formal "Treaty" was drawn up between its representatives and those of the City congregations, stipulating that their members resident West of Temple Bar could retain membership and burial rights without being under an obligation to hire a seat. Eleven years later, after prolonged negotiations in the vestry-room of the Great Synagogue, the arrangement was revised and renewed, it being stipulated that all members of the Westminster Synagogue should attach themselves forthwith to one or the other of the older bodies, and that no person should be admitted to the congregation unless he resided beyond Temple Bar or Holborn Bar "or within six miles westward thereof". Detailed regulations were laid down as to the distribution between the respective synagogues of sums "offered at the altar". The greater number of the Westminster members were of course attached to the senior London congregation. The archives comprise a folio volume, "Articles of Agreement entered into between the Wardens and Elders of the Great Synagogue and such members for the time being of the said congregation west of Temple Bar", signed by all those concerned. The "Treaty" did not last, however, for many years. One clause in it had prohibited the establishment of any rival congregation in Westminster or the immediate neighbourhood. When notwithstanding this a secessionist Bethel (afterwards known as the Maiden Lane Synagogue) was set up in Brewer Street in 1810, it became obvious that the protection of the older bodies was useless. The Westminster congregation accordingly acquired its own cemetery in Brompton Road, in 1815, thus becoming independent. It was a pointed warning which, however, took something like half a century to sink in.

Another small conventicle associated with the Great Synagogue had meanwhile come into existence. This was the Polish Synagogue, founded about 1790 and dependent on the Great Synagogue for burial rights. In 1804, it dedicated its new Synagogue in Cutler Street, Houndsditch, in the immediate neighbourhood of the site which it continued to occupy until our own day.3 (It had its counterpart in a Polish Minyan founded in 1792 in Gun Yard, Houndsditch, afterwards dependent on the New Synagogue.) There was also, in what was then the far East End, the place of worship in the street regarded as the heart of the old clothes industry, Rosemary Lane, graphically depicted by Rowlandson in a contemporary caricature (as yet unpublished). This congregation continued its independent existence from 1748 to 1874 (latterly in Prescott Street), but its precise relation to the City synagogues is obscure.

Even before Solomon Hirschell's day, we are able to recover the names of some of the assessors in the Rabbinate, who presumably assisted the Rabbi in giving instruction, occasionally delivered discourses under the auspices of the Synagogue, and sat with him on the Beth Din. Eleazar Liebman Speyer, the first Rabbi of the New Synagogue, was one of the earliest of these of whom we have knowledge; he originated at Halberstadt, in Germany, had been active in London from the time of Hart Lyon, and remained in correspondence with him after he left London. A little later came Abraham ben Solomon Hamburger of Nancy, known in London (where he was attached to the Hambro' Synagogue) as Abraham Nanzig, who wrote a little work, Aleh Terufah (London, 1785), in which he championed the lawfulness of vaccination (or rather variolation) against smallpox: this is, incidentally, the first Hebrew work to contain a mention of aeronautics. He was a member of the Ashkenazi Beth haMidrash, and a friend of "Dr." de Falk, who left him fifty guineas in his will. Simon ben Israel Meshullam, of Prague, and Jacob ben Eliezer were other scholars who flourished at the time of Tevele Schiff, though they may have been laymen; nor is it quite clear whether the David Levi Solomons, a Jewish Rabbi, who died at the age of 100 at the beginning of 1786,4 filled any official functions or no. An itinerant Rabbi who was active in London under the auspices of the Great Synagogue about the same time was Phineas ben Samuel, who taught at a Hebra specially established for his benefit. In his book Midrash Phineas (London 1795) he speaks of the consideration with which the congregation treated him and how the Beadle was instructed to place him in a seat of honour. A list of his patrons is appended to the work, divided up according to their Synagogal affiliation. The vast majority belonged to the Great Synagogue--it is a very interesting roll--among them being Samuel, son of Rabbi Aaron Baer Waley, "the Dayan", of Prague (ancestor through a daughter of the Waley family of today) whose grave in the Brady Street cemetery may still be seen. A contemporary was "David Solomon, a Jewish Priest", a painting of whom, on ivory, by Stephen Poyntz Dunning, dated 1816, is in the Jewish Museum, London: but nothing further is known about him. We now arrive at Solomon Hirschell's own coadjutors--the Dayan Samuel of Lissa, whose wife died in r834; Rabbi Solomon Aarons, Preacher to the Burial Society, who passed away in 1839: and Dayan Aaron Levy (Aaron b. Judah Leib: generally known as "Reb Aron"), of Lissa, a remarkable scribe (several calligraphic portraits by him are extant, including one of the Rabbi), the first person to exercise Rabbinical functions in Australia, whither he was sent to arrange a get (divorce) in 1830.5

The important functions of Clerk6 of the Great Synagogue were performed in Rabbi Hirschell's time by a succession of earnest workers who left their mark on communal history. When he came to England, the office was filled by Isaac Bing, successor to Lefman Polack (who had died in 1791). He was the son of the scholarly Leib ben Isaac Bing, of Frankfort, known as Levy Isaacs, an active member of the community, who became Treasurer in 1767. It was under his auspices that there was initiated in that year the new series of Treasurer's Accounts (Pinkas haGoveh), Isaac being responsible for the clerical work. The latter was admitted a member of the community in 1785/6, and in the autumn of 1788 was elected to fill the functions of Secretary (with which he had to combine those of assistant reader and congregational factotum) at the yearly salary of £20 and perquisites. He remained in office until the new century was well advanced, and though he was dismissed in 1801 in consequence of a most curious accusation that he had married a Gentile in lreland was afterwards re-elected (not reinstated). In 1816, however, he was again dismissed, this time for peculation to the tune of £370. His successor was Moses (Moss) Ansell. On the latter's death in 1840, his functions were temporarily taken over by Lewis Eleazar Pyke (1789-1851), who for some years past had served in the capacity of Beadle (Shomer). He was one of the last of the old school, and before he opened the Synagogue for service in the morning would knock thrice on the door with the great key, to warn the spirits who visited the house of prayer by night that it was time for them to depart. The new Secretary was to be a man of a different type.7

The lay leaders of the community with whom Solomon Hirschell worked and who were associated with him in his main activities belonged to families which had been unknown in the community during his father's Rabbinate. There were no descendants in the male line of Moses Hart and Benjamin Levy. The Adolphuses were attaining distinction, but in the non-Jewish world. Few survived of the once numerous Franks clan, and those few had little interest in Judaism. But (as the Rabbis remarked in commenting on the verse of Ecclesiastes, "The sun also riseth and the sun goeth down"), Israel is not left without a shepherd, and before the sun of one leader sets that of another appears above the horizon. There was a fresh group now directing the affairs of the Great Synagogue - men whose names figure with impressive regularity in the records of the time and whose descendants have continued to play a commanding role in the Anglo-Jewish community from that day to this.

It will be noted that (so far as is known) none started life here as the traditional penniless immigrant, all belonging to families of established position and solid background. There was for example Moses, son of Samuel Pulvermacher, of Krotoschin, who boasted descent not only from the Rabbis of the Pulvermacher family but also from Saul Wahl, the legendary One-Day King of Poland. Born on the Continent in 1743, he settled in London in early manhood, becoming known as Moses Samuel. Here, after beginning in a small way of business in Rag Fair, he ultimately prospered exceedingly; was a leading member of the Great Synagogue, its Warden from 1794 onwards, and its representative on the Board of Deputies; was partly instrumental in the acquisition of the new cemetery in Brady Street, where he lies buried; and built a synagogue for the diminutive congregation in Bath, where he went to take the waters. When he died in 1839, at the ripe old age of 97, his legacies included one of £1,500 to the Great Synagogue for distributing among the poor, each year before Passover, clothing of brown material and (in the case of the men) with "covered buttons". (This sartorial regulation, incidentally, is no longer obeyed.) His brother David, who preceded him to England, was also a stalwart worker for the congregation, a Warden in 1784-6, and one of the Vestry when the present Great Synagogue was constructed.

Moses Samuel, 1741-1839 (from an oil painting by H. Paton)

Moses Samuel married a member of another interesting Great Synagogue family--Rachel, sister of Phineas ben Uri, or Phineas Phillips, Hofjud to the Prince of Thurn and Taxis, for whom he used to bring back a variety of commodities (including on one occasion a magnificent consignment of Dutch bulbs) from the Leipzig fairs. In 1775 he paid his first visit to England, where he traded in indigo and gum. He was doubly connected with the Samuel family, his wife being a sister of Moses Samuel's. At the time of his death in 1822 his sons were already settled in England, one of them having been admitted a member of the Great Synagogue in 1804. Phineas Phillips was the grandfather of Sir Benjamin Samuel Phillips, Lord Mayor of London in 1865/6, and great-grandfather of Sir George Faudel-Phillips, Lord Mayor in 1896/7. From the marriage between Moses Samuel and Rachel Phillips a brood of children were born, who played a very important part in the affairs of the Synagogue and the community in general, married into the élite of Anglo-Jewish society, and are the ancestors of many outstanding titled families of the present day.

Another family, intimately concerned with the Great Synagogue, calls for mention if only because of the long duration of its association. Samuel Joseph (Meshullam Zamel b. Joseph Hollander), admitted a member in 1773/4 and Treasurer in 1780, was elected a warden of the congregation in 1786/7 and remained in office for nearly twenty years. His entire existence was bound up in its welfare and that of the charitable institutions of London Jewry. His son, Joseph Joseph, followed in his steps, and was Parnas in 1822/3; later, his grandson Simon Joseph in turn filled the same dignity. The family was also associated, generation after generation, with the Meshebat Naphesh, or Bread, Meat and Coal Charity, founded in 1779, of which one of its remoter descendants, Gerald B. Joseph, is Secretary at the present time, more than one hundred and sixty years after his ancestor collaborated in its foundation. The Congregation still has in use a Scroll of the Law, with all appurtenances, presented to it by Samuel Joseph in 1814, on the occasion of the Barmitzvah of his oldest grandson, Simeon Oppenheim, its later Secretary. (A poem especially written for the occasion by the Rabbi was chanted at the dedication.)8

Yet another family that came into prominence at the same time, and is still prominent in Anglo-Jewry, is that of Keyser, the first representative of which, Zusskind (i.e. Alexander) ben Jacob Isaac Keyser was member of the Great Synagogue towards the middle of the eighteenth century. A kinsman of his, Eliezer Isaac Keyser, born in 1746, came over from Amsterdam early in life, was admitted a member in 1778/9, and was Warden at the time of the rebuilding, when he represented the Congregation on the Board of Deputies. In his old age, he retired to the quasi-rural calm of Hampstead, where he died in 1820. A number of letters which he wrote hence to his kinsfolk in Leyton, the family of his late cousin Assur Keyser, have been preserved. They present a curious picture of this first Jew in Hampstead, well-liked by his Gentile neighbours but forced to go to the City for Jewish contacts and observances, until advancing years forced him to remain behind even on Passover and Day of Atonement: " the poor Jew alone and only regretted my not being amongst the Congregation at Synagogue. But, thank God, I did not omit one word all day from my prayers." Before this, he had regarded it his special prerogative to chant the Aramaic hymn Yatzib Pitgam and the Haphtarah in the Great Synagogue on the second day of Pentecost, and on his visits to Town had always made a point of calling upon "Dr." Hirschell.

Ark Curtain (presented by Eliezer Keyser on the reopening of the Synagogue, 1790)

From the genealogical point of view, the outstanding figure in the Congregation at this time was Levi son of Baruch (Behrend) Cohen, a member of a very distinguished family of Amersfoort, in Holland, one of whom saved the life of the Stadtholder William V. It was in the third quarter of the century that Levi Barent Cohen, as he was called, came to London. He is first mentioned in the Great Synagogue records in 1773, and before long was established as a linen merchant in a large way in Castle Street, Bevis Marks. He was tremendously pious, as well as wealthy, and there is still preserved his correspondence with the erudite Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, of Prague, whom he asked whether it was permissible to open an umbrella on the Sabbath. He filled in succession all the administrative offices of the Synagogue, being a member of the Vestry when the new building was constructed and Presiding Warden for the first time in 1794. He was twice married, to two sisters - Fanny and Lydia, daughters of Joseph Diamantschleifer of Amsterdam. While his own career had been commonplace though solid, that of his descendants was brilliant: with the result that many of the families most active in Anglo-Jewish life since that time trace their descent to him. It is enough to mention that one of his daughters married Sir Moses Montefiore (it was this match that broke down the traditional opposition to intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim) and another Nathan Mayer Rothschild (it was considered a great triumph for that enterprising young business-man, not long since arrived from Germany): that one of his great-grandchildren was the first Lady Swaythling: that for seventy years or more the English bar has seldom lacked a distinguished lawyer bearing his name: and that the history of the Cohen family during the nineteenth century and after has been the history of the basic institutions of the Anglo-Jewish community, and particularly the London community, as a whole.9

Levi Barent Cohen, 1740-1808 (from an oil painting by G. Harlow)

The most prominent family of all--that of Goldsmid--has been left to the last. According to the current works of reference, blindly following an unscientific biographer of more than a century ago, its founder, Aaron Goldsmid emigrated to London from Amsterdam in 1763. In that case, his rise would have been extraordinarily rapid, and his children, who were to cut such a figure in London life, all of foreign birth. But in point of fact this is not the case, and the arrival of the family in England is to be antedated by some twenty years. Aaron, son of Baruch Segal (i.e. Levy) of Amsterdam, known as Aaron Goldsmit (Goldsmid), regularly figures in the congregational records from 1747 at the latest; in 1751 he was elected Warden, in conjunction with Moses Hart: and on his death in 1782 he left the Synagogue a legacy of £144 to maintain a perpetual light. For the best part of a century, the history of the family and that of the Great Synagogue are inseparable: and all his four sons played an important role in its affairs. George or Gershom, the eldest, who entered into partnership with his father in the firm of Goldsmid and Eliason, was admitted a member in 1766/7. Abraham, the friend of Lord Nelson, whose financial genius was of inestimable benefit to the English treasury in the Napoleonic Wars, and who at one time was instrumental in settling a long-standing dispute between The Times and the Post Office, followed in 1782/3. Asher, of Mansell Street, Goodman's Fields (who became one of the twelve Jew Brokers in 1772) qualified in 1769/7; he was the father of Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, the first Anglo-Jewish baronet and a doughty fighter for Jewish emancipation, himself Parnas in 1821. Baruch or Benjamin, the youngest of the family, Abraham's partner and (among his many charitable activities, famous among Gentiles as among Jews) a founder of the Naval Asylum, joined the others in 1789/90. Though he was better known than any of his brothers in English society, his Jewish sympathies were no less warm than theirs. In his mansion at Roehampton, an apartment was fitted up for use as a synagogue; and on his estate he appropriated a piece of ground for the Chief Rabbi, so that he might grow his own wheat and make his own flour for the Unleavened Bread for Passover. All the brothers in turn served the Great Synagogue in executive offices. George Goldsmid led the way, being Gabbai Zedakah from 1782 to 1784, when he was elected Parnas in conjunction with David Samuel. The London Chronicle of October 4th, 1785, reports how there had recently taken place a meeting of the "principal Rulers, Elders, and Governors" of the Congregation for the purpose of making the elections for the following year, and that the "conduct and management" of the two during the past twelve months had elicited such approval that they were unanimously reappointed.

Ark Curtain (Presented by Aaron Joseph, 1798)

In the wake of Wolf Liepman, founder of the Westminster Synagogue, there had come over from Vienna to London his two nephews, the sons of Samuel Pressburg, the affluent Austrian banker and Government agent. One of this couple was to play a very important part in London life in his day. This was R. Leib Pressburg, to give him the Synagogue name, known in the outside world as Baron Lyon de Symons, of Great Prescott Street, Goodman's Fields, and Lower Tooting. A wealthy diamond-merchant, he was active at quite an early date in the affairs of the Great Synagogue, and his exertions in 1785 in conjunction with Rabbi Tevele Schiff, on behalf of a Jewish boy who had got into trouble, show clearly that he enjoyed valuable society connexions and influence. Indeed, "Mr. de Simon", with his uncle Wolf Liepman, Mr. (Aaron?) Franks and Mr. Moses Zunz, "at Mr. Salter's the grocer corner, in Pulteny Street", together with Mr. d'Almeida in Took's Court, Chancery Lane, and an Italian Jewish 'cellist named Graziani, were among the persons whose names Mozart's father noted down as useful connexions when he brought his son to London in 1764. Lyon de Symons married a daughter of Aaron Goldsmid's, served in all the executive offices of the Great Synagogue, and for some years before his death in 1814 was one of the outstanding characters of London Jewry. With his Continental experience and his passion for organisation, he took a leading part in many of the reforms which were to take place in these years.

The Van Oven family, if of lower social status than some of these, was little less prominent, and probably more useful, in the affairs of the community. Dr. Abraham (ben Joshua) van Oven,10 who had graduated at Leyden in 1759, emigrated not long after to London and was admitted a member of the Great Synagogue in 1764/5. Before long, he enjoyed a considerable practice and played an important part in the life of the community, being appointed its physician (as we have seen) in 1767.11 "Reb Avrom", as he was called, with his gold-headed cane and scarlet cloak (the regular physician's garb in those days) was a familiar and beloved figure in the London Ghetto. He was a good Hebrew scholar, translating into the sacred tongue not only a moralising work like Robert Dodsley's Oeconomy of Human Life, but also Congreve's Mourning Bride--the latter, fortunately, remaining unpublished. One of his sons, Dr. Joshua van Oven (1766-1838) surgeon to the Great Synagogue, was the leading spirit in most of the reforms and many of the fresh departures in the Anglo-Jewish community during Hirschell's rabbinate. His son in turn, Dr. Barnard van Oven (1796-1860), appointed physician to the Great Synagogue in 1827, worked hard for the emancipation of the Jews in England, published more than one pamphlet in connexion with this, and was principally responsible for the establishment of the Jews' Infant Schools. His son again, Lionel van Oven, was active in the community down to the time of his death in 1905. It is a fine record of family service extending over nearly a century and a half: memorable, but in the history of the Great Synagogue by no means unique.


1 The detail is added that the new incumbent was son of a former High Priest, and that his salary was to be £4,000 a year--a gross exaggeration. The name Hart=Hirsch=Hirschell: the degree is imaginary.

2 [This was written in 1940.]

3 In return for the right to have their own conventicle, the Polish Synagogue made an annual contribution of £25 to the Great Synagogue, though in 1797 they found themselves unable to pay owing to the influx of poor from abroad. The former agreement was renewed on October 26th, 1813.

4 Above, p. 86.

5 Reb Arons' colleagues on the Beth Din at the close of Solomon Hirschell's life were R. Azriel ben David (Levy), Aryeh Judah ben Issachar of Krotoschin (A. L. Barnett, 1797-1878), Ze'eb Wolf Gollin of Lissa and Enoch Zundel of Jerusalem.

6 The official designation was Shamash: he combined the functions of Secretary with some of those of Beadle and Assistant Reader, the former however becoming more important with the years.

7 See below, p. 275. As Beadles of the Great Synagogue, three successive generations of the Davis family later served, one after the other: a breast-plate for the Scroll of the Law was presented to the Synagogue in 1874 in memory of the last of them, Abraham Davis.

8 Other donations of this period included a silver Kiddush goblet from Baruch Friedeberg, 1806, and a copper poor-box from Jacob Friedeberg, 1807.

9 It may be noted as a point of interest that Levi Barent Cohen's seat in the Great Synagogue remained in the occupation of his descendants until the present generation. On his death it was taken over by his son, Joseph Cohen, then in turn by his son, Louis Cohen, then by his son, Lionel Louis Cohen (see pp. 172-3, 285, 287), then by his brother, Alfred Louis Cohen, and finally by his son, George Alfred Cohen, who died in 1942.

10 i.e. "Of Ofen" in Hungary, part of the modern Budapest. The family was Sephardi, or rather Italian, in origin, Joshua van Oven's father being a certain Samuel Basan.

11 Another physician who belonged to the congregation at this time was Jacob Canstatt, of Mannheim, who subscribed to the Midrash Phineas in 1735 (as also did Naphtali ben Moses, of the New Synagogue, known as "Dr. Cerf"). The former was probably father or grandfather of the communal physician of 70 years later: see p. 275.


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