Life & Culture

The Sephardi story of being different

Playwright and director Julia Pascal has created a new website tracing the history of the UK's Sephardi Jews, inspired by a cemetery in the grounds of a university


"You can live in a country secretly. But until you have land; until you have somewhere to bury your dead you’re simply not there.”

As the writer and director Julia Pascal says this, the land she has in mind is the Novo Cemetery, within the grounds of east London’s Queen Mary University, and the people to whom she refers are the Sephardi Jews buried there.

Their presence on these shores and in this country’s history books has been all but forgotten. So to correct this wrong, Pascal — perhaps best known as the author of the Holocaust Trilogy of plays , who in 1977 was the National Theatre’s first woman director on the Southbank — has set about breathing life into the history of Britain’s lost Jews.

The result is a rich, multi-layered website, One Lost Stone. Illustrated with paintings by Sephardi artist Anne Sassoon, the resource is dedicated to telling the stories of Sephardi Jews whose place in the narrative of English history has been lost.

“It’s been a massive research project, looking into archives and going way back. When you learn about 1066 in school you don’t learn that the Normans came with Jews. Did you know that?”

The Normans wanted moneylenders, a trade Christianity forbade, explains Pascal.

“So Jews were brought in and immediately hated. They were not equal citizens but they were protected and completely dependent on the crown. In 1290 they were expelled. So the first expulsion in Europe is from England. Many were very poor, in a terrible state and murdered on their way to Dover. So it is these human stories of ordinary people that you never hear about.”

Expulsion is not England’s only first when it comes to Jews. It was the English who in the 12th century came up with the idea of forcing Jews to wear yellow.

“All this stuff became very vibrant and interesting to me in terms of looking at the Jews of England. What you think you know and what you find is another story.”

The idea for the resource occurred to Pascal in 2005, the year Britain’s Jewish community celebrated the right of return under Cromwell in 1656. But it turns out that Jews were never officially allowed back, says Pascal. “We crept in through the back door.”

The idea behind the project, which is funded by the Lottery Heritage, was for the Pascal Theatre Company to perform researched text in the grounds of the Novo Cemetery, which opened in 1733. But the pandemic forced the plans to be cancelled. Instead much of the material has been adapted for the website which is all the richer for it.

In terms of English history, Pascal knew about “the men in top hats who had succeeded by conversion — Benjamin Disraeli or [economist] David Ricardo, who could enter society only by not being Jewish. I thought there’s got to be more to it than that.”

Although Pascal is herself entirely Ashkenazi, “it’s all our heritage. And Sephardi heritage is my heritage too and why should I confine myself to a Germanic Ashkenazi one?”

Some of the Sephardi stories are not so lost. There is Doctor Lopez, who was a spy and doctor for Elizabeth I, for instance.

“He was hanged, drawn and quartered while the crowds screamed ‘hang the Jew’. He pretended to be a Spanish Catholic so he’s a very interesting character. There is also Amelia Bassano, the first woman poet in English literature. She was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and possibly his lover and the Dark Lady of his sonnets.

“She was the daughter of a Sephardi Venetian musician who Henry VIII brought in. She was brought up in Elizabeth’s court and penned this amazing poem which challenges the idea of Eve as the sinner in the garden of Eden story.”

It is these “Jewish fringe” characters who interest Pascal most, not the “well-behaved establishment figures” .

Take poor (literally) Hannah Genesi. She was one of the wretched Sephardi women working in 19th century feather factories that made ostrich feather plumes for the hats of the aristocracy.

“She lived in an alms house and the dust from the plumes and feathers went into her lungs. She died at 31. So you get stories about the Sephardi poor which are not the Jews you usually learn about,” says Pascal.

Hanging over the project is still the mystery of what happened to the Jewish bodies when Queen Mary University was given permission to build over the cemetery in 1972. The controversy was reflected in the JC’s pages of the time. Yet answers surrounding the exhumation still exist, says Pascal.

“I’m not the only one to ask these questions about the removal of 7,000 bodies to a site in Brentwood. I was surprised that that story has still not unravelled. Why were the bodies put in a pit rather than given individual graves? And where are the gravestones? One of the theories is that they may be under Queen Mary [University], or that they have been broken up, in which case there is a terrible loss of heritage. And where is the body of [famous prize fighter] Daniel Mendoza?”

More positively, the research led to workshops held at Bevis Marks Synagogue and for the mostly non-Jewish attendees, a hidden part of English history was revealed.

“It was like throwing a massive jigsaw at people,” says Pascal. “Pieces started to be pulled in and made sense of; names that were familiar; stories only vaguely remembered if at all, came into focus.

“Some of the exercises in the children’s workshops concentrated on the theme of hiding and concealment; of not being safe in your own home. They were about personalising fear, terror and punishment for being one identity or another — the drama of burning at the stake; the humiliation of being paraded in public. These are stories that become immediate to anybody who can imagine the humiliation that happens on social media.

“In that sense for the children who became immersed in the stories, the story of the Sephardim is the story of being different.

“So it became a human story, not only a Sephardi story. It became their story too.”

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