Jews in unlikely places

A new work shows that ‘peripheral’ cities played a far larger role in the history of Anglo-Jewry that many people realise


Archaeologist John Boas working in the site of a medieval synagogue discovered under a Guildford shop in 1996

Archaeologist John Boas working in the site of a medieval synagogue discovered under a Guildford shop in 1996

By Tony Kushner
Manchester University Press, £60

Is it possible to write a history of Anglo-Jewry in which the Jews of London and Manchester occupy the periphery, while Jewish communities in much smaller provincial centres take centre-stage?

In Anglo-Jewry since 1066, Tony Kushner, who holds the chair of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the University of Southampton, sets out to demonstrate that it is not only possible but that the histories of the minuscule Jewish presences in three southern English cities — Winchester, Portsmouth and Southampton — can throw a unique light upon the construction of “the Jew” in English urban life.

Winchester was one of the most important areas of Jewish settlement in medieval England. Today, only the name of a solitary thoroughfare — “Jewry Street” — serves as a tangible reminder of this turbulent past, punctuated as it was with ritual murder accusations, base prejudice and eventual expulsion.

Nine hundred years ago, Jews (men and women) were central to Winchester’s economic prosperity, not merely (or even primarily) as moneylenders, but as artisans, craftsmen and shopkeepers. Yet, today, Winchester is reluctant to remember its Jews. When, in the 1990s, archaeologists unearthed “Jewish” bones where the medieval Jewish cemetery was believed to have been located, the city authorities ignored pleas not to disturb the Jewish dead, and seized instead the offer of a group of Orthodox Jewish busybodies to have the remains reburied in Manchester. As Kushner writes, “Winchester Jewry is now missing from the city’s heritage”.

As with Winchester, so with Portsmouth and Southampton. The “folk” memory of Portsmouth Jewry was epitomised in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1814 engraving of “Portsmouth Point”, depicting the moneylender “Moses Levy”. Portsmouth Jews — so folk memory would have it — were little more than low-life usurers cheating “Honest Jack” out of his hard-earned prize-money. The reality was very different.

It is, incidentally, astonishing now to think that, in the 18th century, the Jews of Portsmouth regarded themselves with justification as occupying the epicentre of a set of Jewish communities stretching from southern England to the northern European mainland, and that the development of the office of British “Chief Rabbi” depended crucially upon their consent.

And Southampton? In terms of transmigrants, it is possible (we shall never know) that, 100 years ago, Southampton could boast a Jewish population larger than that of London’s East End. We do know that many of the “steerage” passengers on the Titanic were Russian and Polish Jews bound for Ellis Island. How many of those who applauded James Cameron’s 1997 movie blockbuster (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) would have been aware of this fact?

Come to that, how many of those who enjoyed The Benny Hill Show on TV in the 1960s and 1970s realise that the raw, lecherous comedy of one of Southampton’s most famous sons grew out of Benny’s youthful interaction with the Yiddish-speaking Jewish shopkeepers of Southampton’s infamous Canal Walk?

Professor Kushner has, in short, provided a painstakingly researched, brilliantly constructed and entirely novel approach to the history of English Jewry.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011