York — site of atrocity, symbol of hope

By Alan Shaw, March 15, 2013
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This weekend marks the 823rd anniversary of one of the darkest points in Anglo-Jewish history - the massacre of the Jews of York. It was by no means an isolated incident. In many ways, the experience of the medieval York Jewish community mirrored the trials and tribulations of the rest of Anglo-Jewry during these times (larger atrocities were committed in other towns). While the heartlessness, cruelty and injustice shown to our ancestors is upsetting, their resilience, spirit and fortitude can serve as a source of inspiration.

Anglo-Jewish history really begins in 1066 with the Norman conquest. Although there are theories regarding earlier visits, real evidence of Jewish life in England begins with the Normans, who brought Jews over with them from Europe. We have references to Jews in Oxford in 1075 and the Domesday Book of 1086 notes a Jew, Manasseh, owning land in Oxfordshire.

During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), Jews were positively encouraged to settle in many English towns. They were known as the "King's Jews" and enjoyed royal protection, in return for which they paid taxes directly to the monarch. Their business acumen made them extremely useful for the essential, but unpopular, trade of money-lending - they were the financiers of the medieval world.

Jews had settled in York by 1130 and it became one of the largest Jewish communities in England and a major centre for Torah study. The community rabbi was Rabbi Yom Tov Yitschak, a renowned talmudic scholar who had come over from France. He was a student of Rabbeinu Tam and a Tosafist in his own right. He was also a renowned poet and composed Omnam Kein, a prayer recited to this day by Ashkenazi Jewish communities as part of the Kol Nidrei liturgy on Yom Kippur.

The lay leaders of the community, Benedict and Josce, were among the wealthiest Jews in England and lived in stone houses that were likened to palaces. In 1177, the community acquired a plot of land for a cemetery called Jewbury. (The road to the east of the city centre is still called Jewbury and a plaque on the wall of a supermarket car park commemorates this as the site of a medieval Jewish cemetery).

For many years the York Jewish community flourished. However, envy of their success, resentment at indebtedness to them and anti-Jewish sentiments fuelled by the Crusades - which began a century earlier - were to have devastating consequences.

At the coronation of Richard I in 1189, Benedict and Josce went to London with gifts for the new king, but were attacked by a mob. Thirty Jews, including Benedict, lost their lives. The king did punish the ringleaders but when he left the country to lead the Crusades, anti-Jewish attacks resumed with renewed vigour.

In February 1190, attacks began on the Jews in Lynn. These spread to Colchester, Lincoln, Stamford, Norwich, Thetford and other towns.

Wealthy landowners, who owed large amounts of money to the Jews of York, now saw this as their chance to rid themselves of their debts. In March 1190, taking advantage of confusion caused by a fire in the city, they incited a mob to attack Jewish properties. Benedict's widow and children were killed. The Jews, supposedly under royal protection, were allowed by the warden of York Castle to take refuge in its wooden tower. Fearful for their lives, the Jews locked out the warden. This tragic mistake paved the way for the newly appointed sheriff to lay siege to the tower, thus signalling to the mob that the Jews were no longer under royal protection.

On the Friday night of Shabbat Hagadol, March 16 1190, 150 Jewish men, women and children, lost their lives in York Castle. Rabbi Yom Tov made an impassioned speech for them to take their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the mob; rhetoric that was reminiscent of Masada. Most did so - the few who did not were promised clemency if they would open the gates but, when they did, they were massacred. The wooden castle was set on fire, after which the ringleaders went straight to York Minster where the records of their debts were kept, and set fire to them. This ensured that not only were they free of their debts to Jews, but that their properties and debts could not be transferred to the Crown.

The King was furious. The sheriff and the warden of York Castle were dismissed, and the ringleaders had their estates seized. Some citizens were jailed, and fines and penalties were imposed on others. But the damage had been done - Rabbi Yom Tov and his followers had been lost and the community, apparently, had been destroyed.

Remarkably, the community resurfaced. Records show that money-lending by Jews in York was taking place in 1201 and by 1208 there are many specific references to a vibrant York Jewish community with Jewish owned properties all over the city. This was no ghetto-type community banished to two or three streets; this was an integrated community that seemed to live among and have good relationships with its neighbours. Between 1210 and 1250, York Jews contributed more in taxes to the King's coffers than the whole of London. Aaron of York (the son of Josce) not only still lived in the city but, from 1236 to 1245, he served as the Arch-presbyter - lay leader - of Anglo-Jewry. He provided the funds, an absolute fortune at the time, for the famous "Five Sisters" window in York Minster.

However, the tide was to turn again. During the second half of the 13th century, attacks on Jews throughout England became more common. In 1262, some 700 Jews were killed in London amid allegations that they were charging excessive interest, when a mob attacked a synagogue in Lothbury Street. In 1275, under King Edward I, a Statute of Jewry forbade Jews from charging interest and enforced the wearing of yellow badges for all Jews over the age of seven.

In 1282, the Bishop of London ordered attacks on all synagogues. In 1283, Jews were accused of "coin-clipping" - shaving bits of silver off the edges of coins.

Consequently, 600 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London and 293 were hanged. Harsh taxation impoverished the Jews further (Aaron of York died in poverty in 1268) and finally, in 1290, they were expelled from England. Their properties were seized by the Crown and all outstanding debts were transferred to the King. Around 16,000 Jews, out of a total English population of two million, left these shores; not to return for 400 years.

A stone tower was built on the site of the wooden castle in York during 1245-1270. (It later became known as Clifford's Tower, after Roger de Clifford, who was hanged there for treason in 1322). Much of this still survives today and is open to visitors. Plaques at the entrance and inside the tower commemorate the massacre of 1190 which is described as "York's blackest day".

York has never regained its pre-eminence as a major Jewish community. There was a small synagogue there between 1885 and 1975 and, in 1990, on the 800th anniversary of the massacre, a special service was held there, attended by the chief rabbi, the archbishop of York and a descendant of the main ringleader, as a gesture of reconciliation. The 2001 census noted 191 Jews living in York - the 2011 census gives the number as 165.

However, the prominent position that York holds in Anglo-Jewish history remains of interest. There is a famous kinah (lamentation) written by Joseph b Asher of Chartres commemorating the massacre. There is also talk (but no documentary evidence) of a cherem (a ban of excommunication, or a curse) being placed on the city. However this would be surprising given that the community re-established itself so soon after 1190 and became stronger, albeit without the earlier levels of scholarship, during the first half of the 13th century.

So why was York singled out for a kinah and, possibly, a cherem? There were attacks on Jews in many parts of England during the medieval period. London witnessed more than a thousand Jewish deaths but we have no evidence of lamentations for those martyrs nor of bans of excommunication on the capital.

Professor Barrie Dobson, writing in 1974, suggested three reasons why York features so prominently in our collective memory:

The first is the remarkable savagery of the attack; the second is the unusual amount of recorded detail by both Jewish (for example Ephraim of Bonn) and non-Jewish chroniclers (such as William of Newburgh). Finally, Professor Dobson points to the calculated conspiracy on the part of the mob leaders to avoid repaying their loans.

I would suggest three further points. The first is that Joseph of Chartres, who wrote the kinah, was also a student of Rabbeinu Tam. He may have known Rabbi Yom Tov personally, but even if he did not, he would have felt a close affinity with him and so would have been moved to compose a eulogy for the tragic loss of this great scholar and his community.

Further, the fact that Jews could read and write meant that his kinah about the martyrs of York, with its similarities to Masada, would have quickly spread and become known across all European communities.

And perhaps York served as a focal point for our people's frustration, anger and despair at those harsh, lawless times. For 200 years, they had been loyal to England. They had been invited to come, had contributed to society and had helped build up the economy.

Yet they were attacked, victimised, ruined financially and, when they had nothing left, expelled. York, perhaps, has became the "scapegoat" for England's harsh and brutal treatment of the Jews in the medieval period

It should be noted that there were supporters of the Jews. That Jews were living successfully in York so soon after 1190 would seem to indicate that some had been sheltered from harm by neighbours who then helped them to rebuild. And when the Jews were expelled in 1290, the then archbishop of York, John le Romeyn, warned his parishioners not to harm any Jews on pain of excommunication.

In more recent times, during the Second World War, the York Refugee Committee settled more than 100 refugees from Nazi Europe. Earlier this year, for Holocaust Memorial Day in January, 12 separate events were organised by York Council, including a candlelit commemoration in Clifford's Tower.

I was privileged to lead my school choir in participating at this commemoration and one of the items I chose for us to recite was Omnam Kein, the prayer for forgiveness composed by Rabbi Yom Tov.

Hearing my pupils sing these words on the very site where Rabbi Yom Tov and his followers lost their lives so many years ago was an extremely poignant experience. A number of thoughts and emotions went through my mind: the horrific power of an unruly mob, the evil consequences of envy, the unfortunate role played by politics and economics in our history, the bravery of those martyrs who gave up their lives because they were Jewish and the resilience of our people, who are able to bounce back after adversity.

But, above all, it was the fact that we are still here. Against all the odds, and despite all the persecutions and pogroms and expulsions over the centuries, here were my wonderful pupils - strong, free and proud to be Jewish - singing their hearts out.

We, who are living in the early 21st century, enjoy freedoms that earlier generations would not have believed possible. We have shuls, schools and youth organisations. We have kosher shops, restaurants and welfare establishments. We have access into every profession and leading representatives in every field of human endeavour - out of all proportion to our numbers. The sacrifices and strength of character shown by earlier generations have helped make us what we are today. Surely the greatest respect that we can show to the martyrs of the past is to ensure that we utilise our freedoms wisely and remain loyal to, and proud of, our traditions and teachings.

Last updated: 11:32am, March 15 2013