The Jewish Traveler: Oxford
The Jews have had a checkered past in this land of castles and kings, but the overall movement of this city has been toward expansion and stability.
Because the English city of Oxford—with the oldest botanic garden in Britain, its solid college buildings of silvery gray and pale amber stone set in green quadrangles and framed by the peaceful tree-swept rivers Thames and Cherwell—is so old and so beautiful, a visitor has the illusion that life in southern England must be eternally stable and serene. But, in fact, for almost 1,000 years changes in the town and in the university, and in the relationships between them, have kept Jewish life in flux.
The first record of an Oxford Jewish community, numbering fewer than 150 people, dates to 1141. Oxford University was established around the same time, already the cluster of 39 individual colleges it remains to this day, but since one had to be Christian to study or teach there, more likely it represented a source of business for Jewish clothing merchants, moneylenders or landlords.
Still, a most dramatic incident in the history of Oxford Jews was caused in a way by the university’s presence. In 1222, a church deacon named Robert came to study aspects of Judaism, taught at the university as a basis for Christian learning (later King Henry VIII was to endow a professorship of Hebrew). The deacon was drawn to Judaism; he had himself circumcised, took the name Haggai, married a local Jewish woman and, when he refused to recant, was burned at the stake.
In fact, the 13th century was a nightmare for all English Jews. They were forced to wear yellow badges and pay increasingly crushing taxes. Many Oxford Jews who lived by leasing to university people were ruined by an edict in 1271 forbidding them to rent except to other Jews, inciting a student riot that resulted in many damaged Jewish homes.
In 1290, when King Edward I expelled England’s 15,000 Jews, possibly only nine householders were left in Oxford. Their synagogue became an inn; their cemetery went to the Hospital of St. John (now the Botanic Garden); and Edward’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, gave their personal property to a few favorites, including her cook.
For the next 300 years, the only Jews in England were a handful of Marranos. At last in the 17th century, with Oliver Cromwell favorably disposed, Jews trickled back to Oxford. Hebrew books were printed by Clarendon Press, including a Mishna and a treatise on chess.
In the 18th century Ashkenazim came from Germany, Sefardim from Turkey and both from other parts of Britain.
Between 1841 and 1871 Oxford’s Jewish population sank to three families, then rose to 10, including immigrants from Poland. The community acquired a shohet and in 1893 a building. And the university, the town’s primary industry, was easing its attitude toward the Jews.
At last, the Oxford University Reform Act of 1854 and the University Tests Act of 1871 admitted non-Christians. In 1869, F. Schloss of Manchester became the first Jewish student to win a scholarship to Oxford.
The following decades brought the first Jew to be elected a college fellow, Samuel Alexander, in 1882, and the first Jewish professor, James Joseph Sylvester, in 1883. By 1904, Oxford had formed a Jewish student society, but the number of Jews remained minuscule.
Already the local congregation often depended on university people to make a minyan. There were a lot of quarrels and sometimes the congregation temporarily fell apart and disappeared.
The 20th century began with a dip in the Oxford Jewish population and then many students were lost to the trenches of World War I. But in the late 1930’s, Europeans fleeing the Nazis arrived and evacuees from the London blitz crowded into town, making its Jewish population at about 1,000 much larger than ever before.
By 1939, Cecil Roth assumed Oxford University’s first Readership in Jewish Studies.
After the war, the university became more welcoming to Jews. In 1956, Oxford students appropriated the highly formal tradition of university eating clubs by founding a Cholent Society, evincing their freedom to participate in the tradition and simultaneously to mock it. In 1970, the congregation built a new synagogue. The community continued to shift and change from year to year, but the overall movement was clearly toward expansion and stability.
Nowadays the membership of the Oxford Jewish Congregation (21 Richmond Road; telephone: 011-44-1-865-514-356; www. oxford-synagogue.org.uk) is comprised of approximately 300 households, of whom about 100 people can be considered active participants. Members are primarily in business and the professions or associated with the high-technology institutions that have sprung up in the area.
The synagogue specifies no one level of observance and is independent of any organized religious movement. Most attend the Orthodox services held every Sabbath and on holidays. Indeed, for most members affirming communal identity is the most powerful reason to participate in any OJC activity.
There is no rabbi. Services are led by volunteers, who also manage the library, lead the friendship society for the elderly and publish theMenorah magazine four times a year. The synagogue school currently serves about 80 children.
The OJC has taken a leap of faith by enlarging the building, renovating the interior and adding classrooms. The sea-foam colored roof curls up at the edges, suggesting waves breaking gently over the walls. In the main sanctuary, the flat façade of a black formica Ark has now been stripped, subtly restored to its original Victorian charm. The smaller communal room holds an Ark of English oak, its doors thought to date from around 1740, its front a profusion of flowers carved around 1880.
There are 800 to 1,000 Jews on the university campus alone, plus several hundred at a second university, Oxford Brookes. Fewer than half participate in Jewish activities.
The primary Jewish student organization is the Oxford University Jewish Society (pronounced JAY-sock). A young American family, Rabbi Yoni Sherizen, his wife, Dalia, and their baby boy arrived last year as part of the international Jewish Learning Initiative to support J-soc activities. They offer daily classes at various locations on campus or in their own living room (home: 44-1-865-515-502; email@example.com).
Chabad House (75 Cowley Road; 44-1-865-200-158; www.chabadofox ford.org.uk) is run by another recently arrived young couple, Rabbi Eli and Freidy Brackman.
Chabad sponsors learning at colleges and libraries and organizes lectures integrating the secular into daily Jewish life. There are plans to expand into larger premises and for building a mikve in the backyard.
Another institution serving the academics and the Jews is the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Yarnton Manor, outside the city proper. Yarnton is a freestanding academic department established in 1972 to kindle Jewish studies at Oxford. To that end, and in cooperation with other parts of the university, the centre offers graduate degrees and has contributed to the creation of many hundreds of learned books and articles, as well as Modern Hebrew fiction and poetry. It also hosts the European Association of Jewish Studies and publishes the Journal of Jewish Studies.
Yarnton’s Jacobean manor house, built in 1580 and one of the largest English family houses of that period, hosts lectures and seminars that are open to the public (44-1-865-377-946; users.ox.ac.uk/~ochjs).
Oxford seems to be typically European in its pro-Palestinian stance; it is discussing twinning with the city of Ramallah, though there is some effort to twin with Neve Shalom as well. Similarly, vocal elements of the academic community are pro-Palestinian. There is an Israel Advocacy Committee that ran a letter-writing workshop in conjunction with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
Oxford no longer has a Jewish neighborhood, but you can get a sense of where the medieval Jewish quarter was. Start at the intersection of Cornmarket and St. Aldate’s and Queen Street and High Street; this has been the heart of the city for over a thousand years. Climb Carfax Tower here; it is not very high, but affords a lovely view.
When you come down, walk one block downhill along St. Aldate’s, which in the Middle Ages was called Fish Street. For a period it was also known as Great Jewry Street because the Jews lived there. On the left is the Victorian Town Hall; read the plaque on its side wall recalling Jewish settlement here. Look down the alleyway to an old stone wall that curves away to the right: This is Blue Boar Street, where Jews once lived; nothing remains of the community.
Cross St. Aldate’s to the Botanic Garden, where a plaque on the entrance arch marks the site of the 13th- century Jewish cemetery.
Oxford has several extraordinary libraries of Judaica. The collection in Yarnton contains many yizkor books and a complete photographic record of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Oriental Institute on Pusey Lane houses some 9,000 volumes, strongest in biblical and traditional areas (44-1-865-377-946; www.orinst.ox.ac.uk). And the reknowned Bodleian Library includes an autographed Maimonides manuscript. Special permission is needed to work with the Bodleian Hebrew holdings, but it is worth a visit just to look around the splendid reading room (Broad Street; 44-1-865-277-166; www.bodley.ox.ac.uk).
The Drapers Gallery in the pretty cream-painted Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology (Beaumont Street; 44-1-865-278-000; www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk) displays pottery from the ancient cities of Nineveh and Jericho and ancient seals and coins.
The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in Oxford’s Faculty of Music (St. Aldate’s; 44-1-865-276-139) displays shofars, cymbals, bells, harps and a drum of the sort believed to have been played by Miriam after crossing the Red Sea. These are part of the private collection of a synagogue member, music historian Jeremy Montagu, author of Musical Instruments of the Bible (Scarecrow Press).
Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, is about three hours away by car and makes an easy day trip, with time for sightseeing and a matinee performance. Warwick Castle, one of the best-preserved medieval castles in England, is also nearby. Cotswold Roaming (44-1-865-308-300) leads tours to both places. And London is only about an hour-and-a- half away by bus or train.
Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, is only a 15-minute drive away (www.blenheimpalace. com). Explore its splendid interior and the 2,000 acres of rolling parkland that surround it. Then emerge for tea in the tiny, charming village of Woodstock.
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) came to England from Riga as a child. He took his degree at Oxford and later taught there. He became governor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Walter (Ettinghausen) Eytan, a scholar who was particularly hospitable to the refugees who flooded Oxford in the 1940’s, became the first director-general of the Israeli foreign office. British statesman and Member of Parliament Herbert Louis Viscount Samuel became first high commissioner of Palestine.
Bald, unusually big and tall, George Silver was spotted in the street by a talent scout and went on to enjoy a second career playing movie villains in such popular films as Murder on the Orient Express.
Shmuley Boteach founded the L’Chaim Society at Oxford, where he served as a Chabad rabbi from 1988 to 1999. President Bill Clinton attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1969 and 1970. Dr. Oliver Sacks will be honored by the university in 2005; past honorees include author Joseph Heller and Baruch S. Blumberg, Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperback), a comic fable about love-struck Oxford undergraduates, is set among still recognizable local landmarks. Evelyn Waugh’s novelBrideshead Revisited (Back Bay Books) visits the university, and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse detective stories (Ballantine Books) describe crime scenes all over town. Both Brideshead and the Inspector Morse series are available as videos and DVD’s.
Sainsbury’s markets and shops at the Covered Market off High Street carry some kosher products. Packaging certifying kashrut is rare; shoppers rely on The Really Jewish Food Guide printed by the United Synagogue Kashrut Board (44-1-813-436-259; www.kosher.org.uk).
Oxford has no kosher restaurants, but when school is in session tourists are welcome every night to dinner at the synagogue. Shabbat dinner at the Chabad House is open all year. It is helpful to phone ahead.
Oxford has several pleasant vegetarian restaurants, including Beat Café (Little Clarendon Street; 44-1-865-553-543) and the child-friendly Magic Café (110 Magdalen Road; 44-1-865-794-604).
The four-star Randolph Hotel, about 150 years old, is a 10-minute walk from the synagogue.
Both tradition and change have always operated in Oxford, and the history of its Jews is a window onto the dramatic history of this beautiful little city.