The Jewish Traveler: Liverpool
Over a century ago, thousands of Jews passed through this city en route to the New World; their time here was short, but the welcome was warm—as it will be for you.
A stunning bronze statue—a male nude reaching for the stars as he stands in the jutting prow of a ship—graces the facade of Lewis’s department store, founded in downtown Liverpool in 1856 by Jewish businessman David Lewis. Created in the 1950’s by sculptor Jacob Epstein, “The Spirit of Liverpool Resurgent” symbolizes the determination of its people to see the city rise from the ashes of wartime bombing.
Since then, this once-bustling port has faced hard times as many of its docks have fallen into disuse. Today, however, the statue speaks to another generation that is rebuilding this seaport city once again as Liverpool looks to 2008, when it will be the European Union’s Capital of Culture, a designation awarded yearly to promote the art and cultural offerings of European cities (www.liverpool08.com).
This UNESCO World Heritage city on the Mersey River might nowadays be best known as the native city of The Beatles, but it is also the home of the first enclosed commercial wet dock; of street after street of elegant Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings; and of the famed Mersey ferry. Equally noteworthy are “the Three Graces,” the cluster of buildings that line the Pier Head: the Port of Liverpool Building; the Cunard Building, former headquarters of the fabled shipping line; and the towering Royal Liver Building. Liverpool lays claim to being the first organized Jewish community in the north of England and the largest provincial one outside London until the mid-19th century. From its docks, hundreds of thousands of Jews, including a number of American Jewish forefathers, set sail for the promised land.
Records uncovered in recent years by Liverpool’s Jewish community suggest that the first Jew to settle in the city was Leon Villareal, a Portuguese Jew who came from Demera in Guyana in 1740. It is thought that several Sefardic merchants traveled from the West Indies to Liverpool in the first half of the 18th century to supervise their trade, but little is known about them. By the 1750’s, a small number of Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers from Germany had settled near the present Canning Place, then site of the Old Dock and Custom House in the docklands. Their presence led Methodist preacher John Wesley to note in 1756 the tolerance of the Liverpudlians toward the Jews “who live among them.”
As the port rose to international prominence due to the expansion of British trade in the American colonies and the West Indies, notably the transatlantic slave trade, Jews from other parts of Britain, Germany and Holland migrated to Liverpool. Most of those early settlers were shopkeepers, but some became involved in banking and overseas trade. The port’s Jewish population, estimated to be around 100 in 1789, had risen past 400 in 1810 and was nearly 1,000 by 1825.
The Jewish community built its first synagogue in 1808 on Seel Street. A plaque marks the spot today, but its place in British Jewish history was assured when it became the first synagogue outside of London where, as early as 1819, sermons were delivered in English rather than Hebrew. On September 3, 1874, the congregation, known as the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, relocated to a magnificent Moorish Revival building on Princes Road in Toxteth at the edge of downtown.
In 1838, a rift among members of the Old Hebrew Congregation over leadership issues resulted in a breakaway group forming the New Hebrew Congregation, which met in a building at the corner of Hardman and Leece Streets and eventually built its own synagogue in 1857 at Hope Place. The congregation is known today as the Greenbank Drive Hebrew Congregation.
Between 1830 and 1930, more than nine million people, of whom hundreds of thousands were Jews, sailed from Liverpool on the ships of the Cunard, Inman, National and White Star lines to the United States, Canada and Australia. The Jews who used Liverpool as a way station typically stayed from one to ten days in lodging houses run by the steamship companies. But not all of them left: the forefathers of many Jewish Liverpool families—from Germany and, later, from Lithuania, Poland and Russia—traveled to a German port, then across the North Sea to Hull and finally by rail to Liverpool. After arriving in Liverpool, some found their tickets took them only that far. Others decided they liked the city and stayed. Between 1875 and 1914, Liverpool’s Jewish population grew from around 3,000 to an estimated 11,000.
Unlike the earlier settlers who were dispersed within two miles of the synagogues on Princes Road and Hope Place, the East European immigrants of the later 19th century created their own quarter close to the Lime Street Station, a mile east of the docklands, centered around Brownlow Hill, Paddington, Crown Street and Islington. They clung to their language and culture, formed their own religious societies known as chevroth and established congregations (which no longer survive). Many started as peddlers but in time opened shops, while others worked as tailors and cabinetmakers.
Jewish Liverpool thus developed two distinct strata: “the top hat” anglicized merchants who worshiped at the Old and New Hebrew Congregations; and the poorer immigrant community.
In the 20th century, Liverpool’s Jewish community moved to suburbs south of downtown, to Wavertree, Sefton Park and, eventually, Childwall, Allerton and Woolton. The Orthodox Childwall Hebrew Congregation opened in 1938. In 1956, the state-supported King David High School was established on the same Childwall campus. The King David Primary School relocated there in 1964.
The Jewish community, like the larger Liverpool community, has shrunk and aged over the years as the port has suffered. While the 1946 Jewish Year Book listed the Jewish population as 7,500, it counted fewer than 2,700 Jews in 2005.
The King David Primary School and High School have national reputations for excellence and all Jewish Liverpool children are guaranteed admission, yet only an estimated 30 percent of students are Jewish because of the scarcity of Jewish youths in the city. There are now five synagogues (and a nascent Chabad, located at 76 Beech Lane; 011-44-151-729-0443;www.chabaduk.org/liverpool), four of which remain Orthodox; the Liverpool Reform Synagogue (28 Church Road; 151-733-5871) was founded in 1928 as Liberal/Progressive.
Jews contribute to the professional life of the city as lawyers, academics and doctors. The sons and daughters of Liverpool tend to move away, as do their grandparents when they retire.
Yet Liverpool still has an active Jewish community. The Childwall campus on Dunbabin Road—synagogue (151-722-2079), community center and campus—thrums with activity including programs for seniors, arts and crafts, sports and a tennis court. In 1937, the Greenbank Drive Hebrew Congregation moved to its present home in the Sefton Park area near south Liverpool (151-733-1417). The Merseyside Jewish Representative Council (433 Smithdown Road; 151-733-2292; www.liverpooljewish.com) brings together representatives from local Jewish community organizations and can answer questions, as will the staff at Harold House, the Jewish community center on Dunbabin Road (151-475-5671).
Liverpudlian Jews have a strong sense of their past and a wish to preserve it. Since 1968, the community has deposited with the Liverpool Record Office in the Central Library (www.liverpool.gov.uk) numerous documents and books related to its synagogues, education, welfare and community organizations, as well as oral histories and the personal papers of Jewish citizens.
The Princes Road Synagogue (151-709-3431;www.princesroadsynagogue.org) in Toxteth still serves as home to the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation. This architectural marvel—its interior is considered one of the finest examples of Moorish design in British synagogue architecture—has elaborate wood arches, a hand-painted ceiling and magnificent rose windows. While the Ark is in the rear, the pews, which seat 800, face the center and the carved-wood bima donated by philanthropist and businessman David Lewis.
Tours of the building are often held on Thursdays (check with the synagogue in advance) and the congregation’s Saturday services are known for the mixed choir. To follow in the steps of ancestors who passed through Liverpool, sit in the pews at the back. These armless seats were reserved on the Sabbath for transient immigrant visitors rather than for members.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum (www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime) is located at the restored Albert Dock, a group of converted cast-iron, brick and stone warehouses. The “Emigrants to the New World” exhibit reconstructs a dockside street with posters advertising ship departures, then takes you below deck to the sights and sounds of passengers’ bunks in steerage on the American ship Shackamaxon and finally brings you to the United States, where you can view a fascinating video of passengers disembarking at Ellis Island. One of the most famous Jews to pass through Liverpool was entertainer Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania; along with his mother, brother and two sisters, he boarded the S.S. Umbria in 1894 as an 8-year-old to join his father, who had made the journey four years earlier.
The most celebrated sons of Liverpool are, of course, The Beatles, whose rise to fame was handled by their Jewish manager, Brian Samuel Epstein. The Epstein family had a successful furniture and music store business, and Harry and Malka (“Queenie”) Epstein were active members of the Greenbank Drive synagogue.
On November 9, 1961, 27-year-old Brian, who ran the Epstein family record shop near the Cavern Club on Mathew Street, went to see a Beatles performance. “It was pretty much of an eye opener to go down into this darkened, dank, smoky cellar in the middle of the day and see crowds of kids watching these four young men on stage,” Epstein later recalled to friends. As their manager, he polished their stage act (the identical Mohair suits were his idea, as were the low bows they made after performing), got them their big recording contract and negotiated their trips to the United States, including their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Epstein worked with the Fab Four until his sudden death on August 27, 1967.
The Beatles Story museum (Albert Dock; www.beatlesstory.com) traces the band’s history through photographs, artifacts and rooms depicting scenes from their lives, and through the audio reminiscences of Sir Paul McCartney; John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, and his sister, Julia; and Brian Epstein. The Magical Mystery Tour, a two-hour bus trip run by Cavern City Tours (www.cavern-liverpool.co.uk) drives through southern (and Jewish) Liverpool and takes you by the former Epstein house at 197 Queens Drive in Childwall as well as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields and the homes associated with the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo. The National Trust owns and operates tours of Mendips, Lennon’s childhood home, and 20 Forthlin Road, the council house in Allerton where McCartney grew up (www.nationaltrust.org.uk). The original Cavern Club is gone, but a replica, open daily, has been built on its site.
To explore the city’s art scene, stop by the neoclassical Walker Art Gallery (www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker), whose collection ranges from Old Masters to contemporary British artists. The large and dramatic “Samson” by Jewish painter Solomon Joseph Solomon hangs above the main staircase. The Walker also owns the drawings and watercolors of Austrian Hugo Dachinger, who fled the Nazis in 1939 but, because of his alien status, was detained along with other Jewish refugees in 1940 at the Huyton Internment Camp near Liverpool. His fragile works, which depict life in the camp, are not on permanent display but can be viewed by appointment.
The Tate Gallery Liverpool at the Albert Dock (www.tate.org.uk/liverpool) specializes in Modern art. Jewish artist R.B. Kitaj was inspired to create “Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees)” from his many experiences with refugees from Germany; his father and grandfather barely escaped the country themselves. Also on view are works by Jewish artists Mark Rothko, Jacques Lipchitz and David Bomberg.
Music lovers may want to hear the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra perform (www.liverpoolphil.com). Jewish pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who announced his defection from the Soviet Union in Liverpool in 1967 and also made his conducting debut with the orchestra, will appear with them this fall. In 2008, he will serve as artist laureate for the orchestra’s Capital of Culture programming.
Gerry & the Pacemakers, another local rock band that Brian Epstein managed, immortalized the Mersey ferryboat in 1965 in “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” At Pier Head near the Albert Dock, get on board for a 50-minute River Explorer cruise to the mouth of the river and some breathtaking waterfront views (www.merseyferries.co.uk).
Civic leaders, both local and national, have included businessman Louis Samuel Cohen, chosen as the city’s first Jewish lord mayor in 1899, and international financier Samuel Montagu, who was elected to Parliament in 1885.
Former Member of Parliament Edwina Currie (née Cohen) grew up in Liverpool and has achieved notoriety for revealing an affair with former Prime Minister John Major in her kiss-and-tell Diaries 1987-1992 (Time Warner Books UK) and a series of raunchy novels. Her autobiographical novel, She’s Leaving Home (Warner), is set in Liverpool.
Britain’s first high commissioner to Palestine, Sir Herbert Louis Samuel, was born in Toxteth in 1870 and served as Britain’s representative in Palestine from 1920 to 1925. Israel’s second Ashkenazic chief rabbi was Isser Yehuda Unterman, who had been a leader in the British Zionist movement and served as Liverpool’s communal rabbi from 1923 to 1946.
Quack physician Samuel Solomon offered medicinal relief in the early 19th century to those stricken with chronic “masturbation, scrofula, and related ills” when they used his Cordial Balm of Gilead, a concoction of brandy and herbs.
British crooner Frankie Vaughan (1928-1999) made love to Marilyn Monroe in the movie Let’s Make Love in 1960, but the local Jewish community remembers the pop singer from his youth, when he was simply Frank Abelson.
Singer-songwriter Ian Broudie (“Tales Told”) was born on Penny Lane and grew up around the corner on Menlove Avenue.
Prize-winning writer Linda Grant grew up in a Liverpool Jewish family, and the backdrop for her novel Still Here (Time Warner Books UK) is the Albert Dock, Brownlow Hill and other parts of the city. Brian Epstein’s impact on The Beatles is discussed in Bob Spitz’s authoritative and well-reviewed The Beatles (Little, Brown). Liverpool (Yale University Press), by Joseph Sharples, provides a historical overview as well as a street-by-street architectural guide, including photos of the Princes Road Synagogue.
The affordable Premier Travel Inn Albert Dock (East Britannia Building; www.premiertravelinn.com) puts you right along the Mersey River downtown and is an invigorating 20-minute walk uphill to the Princes Road Synagogue. The ship-shaped Thistle Hotel on Chapel Street (www.thistlehotels.com), also near the waterfront, is an easy walk from the city center. Harold House and Shifrin House can help to find home hospitality if visitors wish to attend services at Childwall Hebrew Congregation or other outlying synagogues.
Liverpool’s only kosher restaurant is at Harold House (daytime, 151-475-5671; evening, 151-475-5825). The restaurant can provide meals at local hotels if contacted in advance. Kosher food, including bagels and sandwiches, can be bought at Childwall Kosher Delicatessen (256 Woolton Road; 151-722-3545) and Rosemans Delicatessen (20 Childwall Abbey Road; 151-722-3929).
Jacob Epstein’s aspiring bronze seaman—Liverpool’s answer to “under the clock at Grand Central”—has long been a popular meeting place for couples, including John and Cynthia Lennon. Stroll past with someone you love and you may find yourself singing, “I want to hold your hand.”