The stones that remind us of our foundations

Compiling a Jewish history tour of London gives clues about what makes a community survive

March 12, 2020 16:18

In 1924, a pottery lamp was found in a sandpit in Flitwick, Bedfordshire. There would not have been anything remarkable about the lamp, except for the fact that, moulded near its spout, was the unmistakable outline of a menorah. Dated to the fourth century, the Flitwick menorah provides possible, yet elusive, evidence that there was a small Jewish community in Bedfordshire during this period.

I find the Flitwick menorah a powerful metaphor for the story of the Jewish community in the British Isles. Definitive evidence of Jewish life in this country stretches back nearly a thousand years. Jews witnessed the conquest of William the Conqueror, suffered the horrors of the Expulsion, enjoyed the benevolent protection of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, and justly earned their proud place in the remarkable story of the East End of London.

And yet, in so many of the locations in which Jews once lived, little physical evidence of their presence remains. Those searching for the Jewish story in this country are left searching for clues — small points of light, like the tiny flames of the Flitwick Menorah. But when such clues are found, sometimes the messages they contain are so contemporary that they more than make up for the lack of physical evidence of historic Jewish life.

I have spent a considerable amount of time searching for these clues recently, putting together a tour of the history of Jewish London in honour of the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the United Synagogue. And several clues to a long forgotten Jewish presence have deeply moved me along the way:

The site of the first Jewish burial ground in Britain, located in the Barbican. The East End home of the Jewish Board of Guardians, with its mission of providing “Relief for the Jewish Poor”. The locations of two long lost “cathedral shuls”, both named “The Great Synagogue” — one in Old Jewry in the City of London and one in Dukes Place, north of Aldgate — both today marked only by a small plaque on the wall.

Yet, there is no clue that moves me more than the single most significant artefact still in existence from the Jewish community of medieval London. Recently relocated to the Jewish Museum in Camden, it is a mikveh, discovered in Milk Street, not far from the site of the first Great Synagogue. Its discovery of the mikveh in 2001 by Museum of London archaeologists was not actually that surprising. Across the world, wherever evidence of ancient Jewish settlement is found, it is usually the mikveh which remains when everything else is long gone. Often built into the subterranean bedrock, subsequent building above the structure leaves the mikveh undisturbed and even relatively well protected. So why do I find the stones of this mikveh so moving?

It is because of what those stones represent. They represent the commitment of a community to its religious laws and traditions — and in particular those which relate to the home and family life. We struggle to imagine what life must have been like for Jews in medieval London. Living as a minority group in a deeply suspicious and superstitious society, their protected status under the Crown lasted only until the next round of antisemitic mob violence found its way towards their streets. Yet, what kept them strong was their adherence to their faith and way of life.

When they laid those stones for the mikveh in Milk Street, they had no idea how long their fledgling community would exist. The hostility on the street outside towards their presence would always have been a clear and present danger. But they knew the one area they had control over was their faithful commitment to the traditions of their ancestors. And so, like the person who carved the Menorah image on the Flitwick lamp, they laid down the foundation stones for their mikveh, hoping that it would represent not just a commitment to their communal life, but to the ongoing religious observance of its members.

Jewish presence in London from ancient times is indeed elusive. We have only fleeting glimpses of our ancestors’ presence in this city. Yet, like the mikveh on Milk Street, in striving to secure the next 150 years in the story of the British Jewish community, it is the personal commitment of its members to the faith of their ancestors that remains the only true guarantee of its future survival.

Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood synagogue


March 12, 2020 16:18

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