Nu? York? Yes, that's where I'm moving to

By Ben Rich, August 16, 2013
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When I tell people we’re relocating to York they tend to tip their heads to one side sympathetically and sceptically wonder whether there are many Jews there.

Actually, when I first moved to York – as a student in 1985 - I shared the assumption behind this question. But I was on a mission to escape the ghetto.

It didn’t work: within six months I was chair of the University Jewish Society and spent much of the subsequent three years looking after American exchange students who wrongly assumed that old York would be as flushed with Jews as its transatlantic namesake. I showed them Fiddler on the Roof and packed them off to Leeds for bagels.

To be a Jew in York is like being Matt Lucas’ only gay in the village. One may have to bake one’s own challah, and lox may be limited to what doors have, but it doesn’t take long to bump into a few co-religionists, and there’s a plentiful supply of people who whisper in your ear “I’m kinda Jewish too”.

In fact, according to the most recent census, there are a couple of hundred self-identifying Jews living there, associated with one of the city’s two universities, its hospital or its local government base, working in the professions, or simply escaping from nearby Leeds.

But that must be a massive understatement. Few of those “kinda Jewish too” folk stretch to ticking a Jewish box on a form — maybe because they have only one Jewish parent, or were not brought up that way, or are escaping the way in which they were raised — yet scratch beneath the surface and they still retain the desire to “associate themselves”, one way or another.

The 70 or so attendees at the annual second night Seder, established by York’s Anglo-Israel Friendship society, are typical. The turnout is one of which many a provincial synagogue would be proud, but for many of those present this is their one Jewish “outing” of the year, a significant proportion have what in polite circles are called “status issues” and a handful are Christians who are “strong for the Jews”, a phrase I find compellingly repulsive.

The reason, of course, for the surprise at finding that York does indeed have a sizeable Jewish population today relates to the fate of our predecessors, who, on March 16 1190, were killed by an angry mob or committed suicide rather than face them.

An estimated 150 men, women and children died that night, having previously taken shelter in York Castle, the keep of which — Clifford’s Tower — is still a feature of the city’s landscape.

It is alleged that the massacre resulted in a cherem (a ban or excommunication) being issued against Jews living in York, although there is no firm evidence of this. Over the years Jews have frequently returned, with a synagogue in the city for a number of years in the middle of the last century and a JSoc which thrived almost the moment I handed over, to someone equipped to do more than show nostalgic videos.

In fact, the city is full of Jewish relics, from a street named Jewbury, to the site of the Jewish cemetery (now Sainsbury’s on the inner ring road) to the Jewish window at the Minster, providing ample material for York University’s Professor Helen Weinstein’s irregular Jewish sight-seeing walks.

For me, the question about living in York is not “why?” but “why not?” Who would not want to live in a place with rivers, ghosts, Romans, Vikings, bikes and Sam Smith’s bitter at less than a couple of quid a pint?

In whose name might we impose our own exile and to what purpose? Antisemitism thrives where Jews are invisible to challenge the fear of the unknown and reveal our lack of horns. I doubt our children will be the first or only Jews at their new school, but if, simply by their presence, they help to challenge prejudice, then what a bonus!

And even if there is not a synagogue in York today, there has been one in the past, and there will be again. There’s already a community, so the rest is up to us.

This is our country and I will live where I want, and I choose to live in York.

Ben Rich is a writer and strategic communications consultant

    Last updated: 11:45am, August 16 2013