The Jewish Traveler: Yorkshire and Lincoln
Jews in England’s great wool centers and archetypal church-and-castle towns honor their historic local presence while trying to maintain a Jewish present.
In bits and pieces, shreds and patches, the past and present of English Jewry—particularly beyond London—is well-reflected by what exists of it today in eastern sections of England’s North Country.
Jewish history has made an uneven yet full circle in the region. From Jews’ medieval triumphs and tribulations in the majestic cathedral towns of Lincoln and York to their Industrial Revolution contributions of the 19th and 20th centuries in towns such as Leeds and Bradford and back to the recent reestablishment of a community in Lincoln, Judaism’s impact on the north of England can still be felt—and seen.
The official story of the Jews in England begins with the arrival of those who crossed from France at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1066.
Since they were generally literate and primarily financiers, they were most likely “invited” to develop commerce and trade. Though Jews initially clustered in London, they eventually spread to areas still today called “the provinces.” By the time Henry II added the English throne to his French holdings in the mid-12th century, Jewish communities had been established in most significant English cities, including Lincoln and York.
Though some Jews were merchants, the communities’ primary function was to provide funds for development projects desired by the crown and the church. This often created a smoke-and-mirrors operation since, not being really free men but wards of the throne, the Jews and their possessions actually belonged to the king.
Given the domino effect of the borrower-lender syndrome, resentment grew against those most accessible—the Jews. The first recorded blood libel against Jews anywhere occurred in Norwich in 1144.
During this period, the most notable financier in England was Aaron of Lincoln (c. 1125-1186). Upon his death, records revealed debts from merchants and churchmen in at least nine shires, amounting to 20,000 pounds, more than half the king’s annual income. Since the king created a special branch of the Exchequer with two treasurers and two clerks to deal with the involved sums, some speculate Aaron had actually established a rudimentary banking system with influence ranging far beyond Lincoln. Benedict and Josce of York, Jewish financiers in the city, probably fell within his orbit.
Such wealth helped build monasteries and cathedrals, including Lincoln’s. But Benedict and Josce lived into times more troubled than Aaron’s. In 1189, antipathy toward Jews turned to murderous rioting in London when a group was barred from bearing tribute at Richard the Lionhearted’s coronation. Among those rejected were Benedict and Josce, the former so wounded he died en route home.
The threats rumbling throughout the country compelled York’s Jewry on erev Shabbat before Passover, March 16, 1190, to attempt to take shelter in the section of York’s castle called Clifford’s Tower. When it became clear they would not escape the bloodthirsty mobs, about 200 committed suicide. Those remaining were promised freedom upon conversion—but they were murdered on their leaving the tower, which was subsequently burned.
Though the so-called York Massacre passed into Jewish lore—with prayers being recited in its memory on Tisha B’Av and some rabbis placing bans on Jewish habitation in York—the community regrouped relatively quickly and, as did compatriots elsewhere in the land, continued to prosper. Still, in 1290, England officially expelled its Jews.
However, some Jews may have remained discreetly; others slowly drifted back. By the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s time (mid-17th century), no effort was made to bar them. English Jewry officially celebrated the 350th anniversary of its return to England in 2006.
Initially, returnees were primarily descendants of refugees from the Inquisition and, therefore, Sefardic. During the early-to-mid-19th century, Central European Jews, particularly Germans, arrived, often bringing with them wealth and know-how. Then came the inevitable flood—the impoverished and downtrodden East Europeans. Many of these had dreamt of America but were either too destitute to continue beyond transit ports such as Hull or Liverpool or believed they had actually reached the Goldene Medineh.
Because some of the German Jews knew the wool trade, they headed for England’s great wool centers—the better educated generally to Bradford; the others, to Leeds.
Leeds had begun receiving Jewish settlers from Europe and elsewhere in the British Isles by the late 18th century. By the first half of the 19th, they were virtually all English speakers established in specialized professions. Because the now assimilated German Jews were not ready to accept outsiders, the swelling community split into many factions.
Seemingly, the three most productive ventures to transcend these squabblers were Marks & Spencer, begun by Lithuanian-born Michael Marks in 1884; the upscale clothing chain Burton’s, founded by Montague Burton; and, for better or worse, the innovation of piece-work production. This operating method was the brainstorm of Herman Friend and ultimately led to the development of sweatshops.
Leeds has England’s third largest Jewish community after London and Manchester. With a Jewish population estimated at 8,000, the city maintains several houses of worship including the Reform Sinai Synagogue on Roman Avenue (011-44-113-266-5256;www.sinaisynagogue.org.uk); Orthodox Beth Hamidrash Hagadol (399 Street Lane; 44-113-269-2181); the Lubavitch Etz Chaim (411 Harrogate Road; 44-113-266-2214; www.etzchaim.co.uk), which houses a mikve; and the Orthodox United Hebrew Congregation (151 Shadwell Lane; 44-113-269-6141).
Etz Chaim’s rabbinical office sits above Gourmet Foods (584 Harrogate Road; 44-113-268-2726), which stocks a small selection of kosher food products and operates a kosher butcher.
Demographically older than Jewish communities elsewhere in England—with about 30 percent 65 years and over—Leeds Jews cluster primarily in the northerly outlying areas of Moortown and Alwoodley. About half consider themselves secular; six percent call themselves Orthodox while the remainder claim to be traditional.
Opened in 2005, the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Community Centre (311 Stonegate Road; 44-113-218-5888; www.mazcc.co.uk) is a beacon for the Leeds community, housing several local Jewish organizations—such as the Leeds Jewish Representative Council, an umbrella organization—and running two kosher restaurants, Oasis Café and The Vine.
About 500 Jews remain in Bradford. If observant, they attend either the Moorish-style Bradford Reform Synagogue on Bowland Street (44-127-472-8925); or the Orthodox Bradford Hebrew Congregation (44-127-458-1189) on Springhurst Road in Shipley.
Drawing from neighboring towns and the many air bases in Lincolnshire, congregants held the first Shabbat services in Lincoln in modern times on September 12, 1992. Currently, they meet on the first and third Shabbat of each month. Contact the Lincolnshire Jewish Community (44-146-958-8951) for more information.
In Leeds, near Vicar Lane, the Kirkgate Market still stands as a testament to the city’s mercantile past. Of significant note is the clock in the covered section naming its contributors, Marks & Spencer. However, it’s not clear if the mammoth chain of clothing stores actually began here or in the outdoor market flanking the Kirkgate building.
Also not far from downtown Leeds, at the corner of Gower and Bridge Streets—the latter having once been home to several synagogues—is an almost block-long, two-story structure now called the Academy of Oriental Cuisine Training Center. Boasting a green, pagoda-style roof supported by red pillars and punctuated by ornate arched windows, the place is now a culinary school. But beneath the apex of the primary section of the roof, a six-pointed star is just discernable. This was once the Gower Street School, a public school whose student body was largely Jewish and Yiddish speaking.
Bradford is trying to spiff up its image with major renovation taking place in the Little Germany area, where German Jews established wool warehouses in the mid-19th century. It is thought that 50 percent of the area was then in Jewish hands. One standout is the Forster Square Warehouses once occupied by, among others, Sir Jacob Behrens & Sons. Behrens arrived in 1838 and became the first foreign merchant to export wool from the city, ultimately creating a business ranging as far as Calcutta and Shanghai. He also founded Bradford’s Chamber of Commerce and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1882 for his work on commercial treaties between England and France.
But the most significant sights of the area are primarily those in Lincoln harking back to the Middle Ages.
By the mid-12th century, Lincoln had already grown wealthy from its wool. It was—and remains—an archetypal castle-and-church town, with the monumental cathedral and nearby stronghold looming extraordinarily high above all else.
From the plateau bearing these two staunch structures the town almost falls down a roadway so steep it is called Steep Hill. Here stand two buildings of utmost significance not only for Jews but for all England. At 2-3 Steep Hill is the building known as Jews’ Court and, at 15 The Strait, is Jews’ House.
It is likely that at least some of the other medieval houses edging this way were inhabited by Jews: Since they were not full citizens of the realm—and were forced by the church to wear distinguishing clothing—for security, they congregated close to the castle.
Today an upscale restaurant, Jews’ House (44-152-252-4851;www.jewshouserestaurant.co.uk) is reputed to be the most intact Norman structure extant. Built in the 1160s, its rectangular chunks of stone range in colors from light tan to russet. The first floor, though now punctuated by rectangular windows, probably was originally pocked by arching arcades serving as shops. Upstairs was most likely a hall or living quarters.
Jews’ Court, now a souvenir shop, was once thought to have housed the synagogue. But while today’s local Jews are convinced they have found the niche in which sat the Torahs, some Lincoln researchers believe the synagogue was actually located behind the court.
Until recently, Aaron of Lincoln’s house was identified as 47 Steep Hill, currently a German wine shop. But archaeologists have tentatively decided that his house probably stood in the Bailgate area, now a shopping center near the cathedral.
At different intervals along Steep Hill were markets for poultry and fish. Beneath the hill is Brayford Pool, a point where merchants and moneymen met to do business.
Superseding all in Lincoln, though, is its cathedral filled with stained-glass windows, many of which depict stories from the Hebrew Bible. Once, the cathedral was notorious among Jews for having a shrine to a boy known as Little St. Hugh. He was supposedly killed by Jews and thrown down a well, and this libel was so widely known that Chaucer recounted it in “The Prioress’s Tale.” The cathedral was used as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey in the 2006 film The Da Vinci Code.
In York, nothing remains of the original Clifford’s Tower. But a re-creation, built on an elevated hillock, serves as a reference point. In October 1978, a plaque was placed at the base of the tower noting the massacre and, between 1995 and 1996, 250,000 daffodils were planted on the slopes surrounding the tower, timed to bloom for a Passover commemoration. In 1990, a reconciliation ceremony was held and a descendant of Richard Malebysse, the man deemed most responsible for causing the massacre, wrote a letter of apology.
Overlooked, too, until recently was the area just outside York’s northern gate and a block to the east. There is a stretch there—an extension of St. Maurice’s Road—called Jewbury. It was discovered during an archaeological dig in 1982-1983 that a Jewish cemetery lay beneath a parking lot for Sainsbury’s supermarket. The remains of more than 500 bodies were found and reburied nearby, with England’s chief rabbi attending; a plaque was erected noting the area’s importance.
Just inside the Monk Bar Gate, walking south, the first major turning on the left is Aldwark. There may have stood a medieval synagogue here; what is definite is that about 20 yards from the junction, where a sign notes that the building belongs to the Royal Air Force club, a Jewish congregation that had formed at the end of the 19th century continued gathering upstairs until it disbanded in 1975.
Further south is Spen Lane, where Benedict of York may have lived, supposedly in a palatial stone house. At the junction of Jubbergate and Coney Street, Jews also reportedly congregated, possibly even having a synagogue here.
What is most prominent of York’s Jewish past, though, is the cathedral, called York Minster. Fairly well known is that Jews paid, at least in part, for the Five Sisters Window (referred to as Jewish Window), an arch of five vertical sections visible through the south door of the transept. There is also a window to the left of the organ that was donated around 1530 by Michael Soza, a goldsmith born in Spain. He probably converted to Christianity to marry and went on to become the sheriff of York.
The Minster’s Chapter House is also noteworthy because it was where records of money owed to the Jews were kept. After the massacre, this was the primary destination of the mob that burned the records.
A 20-mile excursion to the fringe of Yorkshire’s celebrated Moors ends at the monumental ruins of the 12th-century Cistercian monastery, Rievaulx Abbey. While marveling at its erstwhile grandeur, remember, the abbey was probably at least partially financed by Aaron of Lincoln and his associates.
Somewhat closer to York is a spot of splendor made famous by Masterpiece Theater’s dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as well at the 2008 feature film. Much took place in and on the grounds of a glorious country retreat. Serving in this capacity was Castle Howard (www.castlehoward.co.uk), still lived in by Howards but open to the public part of the year.
The castle boasts a chapel decorated with scenes of Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zachariah and Micah. Plus, it now has another connection to English Jewry. In June 2001, Rebecca Sieff, scion of the Marks & Spencer family and descendant of the 19th-century Zionist Rebecca Sieff, married Simon Bartholomew Geoffrey Howard.
British Airways (www.britishairways.com) remains, under almost any circumstances, a treat. Britrail (www. britrail.com) stops at all major destinations, sometimes running elegant high-speed trains. Passes for foreigners are sold in the States, while senior fares and reduced-price, advance-purchase tickets are available in England.
The Best Western Monkbar Hotel (www.monkbarhotel.co.uk) is conveniently located in York. The Hillcrest Hotel (www.hillcresthotel.com) is a small, homey hideaway in Lincoln.
There are various walking ghost tours of York that lead visitors by Clifford’s Tower, one of which is the Original Ghost Walk of York (www.theoriginalghostwalkofyork.co.uk).
Legend has it that the beautiful Jewess Rebecca of Ivanhoe was inspired by the daughter of either Aaron of Lincoln or Benedict of York. Regardless, that image of loveliness as described by Sir Walter Scott either derives from the countryside hereabouts—or vice versa. H