England and Bevis Marks Synagogue
By Randall C. Belinfante
From HaLapid, Spring 2003
Nestled amidst the buildings of London's financial district, positioned such that it rests on what was once the east edge of the city, one finds the oldest standing synagogue in England, the Bevis Marks ynagogue. Having just celebrated its Tricentenial celebration in 2001, Bevis Marks has offered a haven to many Jews seeking to escape persecution for more than 300 years.
Yet, England and Bevis Marks have not always offered such a safe sanctuary for Jews. For more than 350 years, from 1290 to 1658, Jews were not permitted to legally reside in England. Driven out in 1290 after a series of blood libel cases, Jews were viewed as a treacherous pariah until the beginning of the 1600's. Thus when the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th Century, they did not find a safe harbor in England. Instead, the Jews of the Iberian peninsula were obliged to either flee to the east (to Italy, the Balkans, and Turkey) or to put on the appearance of converting and becoming New Christians.
Those who remained in Spain had an extremely difficult time -- they were condemned by Christians for observing a less than sincere faith, while at the same time, they condemned themselves for forsaking the religion of their ancestors. For this reason, many hesitated on the edge and tried to preserve a few of their traditions while observing the religious practices of Christianity. Those who were caught could face the reprimands, the tortures, and even execution at the hands of the Inquisition. In a few instances, this oppression was so overwhelming that a small number of the victims (who were able to find the means) escaped to the shores of Holland and even England.
England, as was noted, did not readily admit the Jewish/ Converso refugees. Not only did the Jews not adhere to the Christian faith, but they came from that bastion of Catholicism that was Spain (Protestant England's arch-nemesis). There was even some fear (as was demonstrated in the case of Dr. Roderigo Lopez-Physician to Elizabeth I) that the Jews might be spies working for the Spanish government. Nevertheless, a small trickle of Spanish/Portuguese Jews managed to find a precarious home on the shores of England.
Then, in the middle of the 17th century, two events occurred that contributed significantly enabling the Jews to return to England: 1) Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel initiated a campaign to gain acceptance for Jews in England, and 2) Oliver Cromwell directed an ambivalent English Parliament to accept the Jews. Rabbi Menassah's campaign was quite comprehensive -- he composed a whole collection of volumes entitled The Conciliador to convince the English people that the Jews were a God-fearing people who read the Bible and upheld its principles. Rabbi Menasseh spent much of the latter part of his life struggling to gain acceptance for the Jews, unfortunately dying in 1658 believing that he had failed.
He may very well have failed moreover, had the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell not intervened. The famous Parliaments that had governed England for sixteen years (from 1642 to 1658) were unfortunately still influenced by the fears and prejudices that had previously made the Jews anathema. In the end, the situation was resolved as one of the effects of the outbreak of a war with Spain. When Spain tried to seize the property of certain notable Jews, the Jews turned to England with petitions asserting that they were subjects not of the Spanish government, but of the God of Israel. Given the option of insisting that the Jews remain subjects of Spain or of granting them refuge in England, Cromwell convinced the English parliament to choose the latter and permit the Jews to stay.
Even before they had received official sanction in England, the Jews had begun organizing places of worship. Certain wealthy individuals erected sanctuaries within their homes. The Jews tended to worship in these residences, while, for the sake of appearances, they attended Catholic services held in the Portuguese embassy. Then, in 1656, the first Jewish synagogue of the resettlement was opened on the second floor of a house on Creechurch Lane (not far from the site of the present Bevis Marks Synagogue).
With the readmission of the Jews to England, there was a rapid increase in the population, as people flooded in from various parts of the world (but particularly from Spain and Portugal). The Jewish leaders tried first to expand the Creechurch Lane building but this quickly proved inadequate. The community thus decided to purchase a lot on a back alley (Plough Yard) around the corner from Creechurch and build anew. There is some confusion regarding the origin of the name of Bevis Marks, which dates back at least to 1407 in the form of "Bewes merkes." The name appears to have been derived from the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds who possessed the property prior to 1156.
Once they had acquired the property, the Jews began to build. For this purpose, a master builder named Joseph Avis was hired, of whom Kadish notes that he was “… a carpenter, Citizen and merchant taylor of London who had in fact worked ... on Christopher Wren's St. Bride's.” It would appear that the Quaker Avis was chosen because he, like the Jews, was not part of the Anglican establishment. On 12 February 1699, a building contract was signed with Avis for the agreed sum of 2,650 pounds, a substantial amount for the time. Avis' workmen erected a structure 80' long, 50' wide and 32' high. It opened in 1701, and from that point forward, Bevis Marks became the heart of the English Jewish Community.
One of the first leaders of the synagogue was the distinguished Rabbi David Nieto. Nieto came from Venice and was one of the leading scholars of his day. Venice had been one of the earliest refuges for the Jews fleeing from Spain, and it had raised a long line of scholars. Nieto was both a Rabbi and a Doctor of Medicine, and he enabled the congregation to establish early contacts not only with Italy and Europe, but also with North Africa and the Middle East. Since then, Bevis Marks has given rise to such notables as the Haham Benjamin Artom (1835-1879) and the scholarly Dr. Moses Gaster, but also to such philanthropists as Sir Moses Montefiore (who did extensive work in helping Jews returning to their homeland in Israel). Other, still more colorful figures were also associated with Bevis Marks. These included the writer Grace Aguilar (who wrote a whole collection of novels and became "perhaps the most distinguished, certainly the most widely read, woman writer that Anglo-Jewry has as yet produced") and the great pugilist (boxer) Daniel Mendoza (who made a science of boxing, and became one of the greatest prize-fighters of his time). Even the family of Benjamin Disraeli (who was to become Lord Beaconsfield and the Prime Minister of England) was rooted in the synagogue. Disraeli's father, Isaac, though engaging in a number of feuds with the synagogue administration, refused to join another synagogue throughout his life.
Thus, despite some discussion of the demolition of the synagogue in the late 1800's the Jews of England have continued to preserve the building, and in 1950, the nation acknowledged that Bevis Marks constituted a "monument of outstanding national importance, and was listed as a Grade I monument."
During World War II, Bevis Marks was the first synagogue in England to step forward and denounce the persecution of Jews in NAZI occupied countries. In the London Blitz moreover, the synagogue managed to emerge with minimal damage. Just as a precaution however, the records, the brass chandeliers, and the ritual silver were all removed and sent for safe-keeping outside the city.
The synagogue did not fare as well during the IRA bombings however. It was never attacked directly, but was to suffer from the reverberations of two bombings that occurred on 10 April 1992 and again on 24 April 1993. The first blast occurred at the nearby Baltic Exchange, and it shattered the leaded glass windows. Fortunately, it was discovered that the Ark was almost freestanding, and with a minimum of underpinning, serious disaster was averted. A restoration was carried out and the synagogue was returned to its original condition in time to celebrate the 300th anniversary in 2001.
One of the most significant contributions of the Bevis Marks Synagogue is the marvelous set of records that have been kept there practically since their inception. From its beginnings, the members have attempted to keep meticulous records of births, marriages, and deaths. They possess circumcision and marriage records back to 1679 as well as records from the cemeteries back to 1733. The synagogue and its records have contributed greatly to the history of Sephardim.
RANDALL C. BELINFANTE discovered, after returning from his first trip to Israel, that he was descended from a long line of Marranos who escaped from Portugal in 1526. They included a large number of rabbis, hazanim, and librarians, and Randy is striving to preserve the traditions of his ancestors. He recently completed a thesis dealing with Isaac Cohen Belinfante, who was a rabbi, librarian, and poet in Amsterdam in the eighteenth century. His family has long been involved in Bevis Marks, with family members listed in the records and a few still participating in the synagogue today.
Society For Crypto Judaic Studies