It’s a Hull of a way to end 250th year

The UK City of Culture's Jewish community marked its special anniversary with a celebratory lunch


The largest ever gathering of Jews in the city of Hull brought the curtain down on a year of celebrations marking the community’s 250th anniversary.

Although the East Yorkshire city has maintained a continuous Jewish presence since Isaac Levy stepped ashore in 1766, Sunday’s reunion lunch in a local hotel was an event unsurpassed in size by any previous generation with 325 people in attendance. 

Expats flocked back from France, Germany, Sweden, Israel and across the UK. Some had not been back to the city for 50 years or more. The eldest guest was 96, the youngest 10 weeks old. Wider interest was reflected by the presence of BBC cameras, local MPs and civic officials.

Illness forced Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to pull out as guest speaker but Maureen Lipman stepped into the breach, explaining the impact of a Hull upbringing on her life

“Looking out today is a very emotional experience,” she said. “It is quite an honour. I gained my culture from this loving, giving community. The Maccabi taught me to swim, the BBYO taught me snogging.

“We have a special personality. This city welcomes people. It opens its arms and says ‘come in, see what you can do’.”

Ms Lipman also spoke about her father Maurice’s tailor’s shop and recounted bumping into Jews with Hull connections around the world — even in the Galápagos Islands. 

“I was always proud to be a Jew from Hull and I have never stopped remembering that,” she concluded.

For a community now numbering around 100, with only a handful of non-pensioners, marking the 250th anniversary in style had been a major undertaking. 

The lunch was the final event in 12 months of celebrations, inadvertently coinciding with Hull’s tenure as the 2017 City of Culture, a project which has brought not only a fresh vibrancy to the banks of the Humber but thousands of new visitors.

A focal point of the afternoon was a popular memory wall of black and white photographs featuring many larger-than-life characters and former ministers. Guests studied the images looking to find themselves or family members.

Hilary Anson left Hull for Glasgow in 1969. Although she is a regular return visitor, the reunion was an opportunity to reconnect with long-lost friends. “I met someone I had been to primary school with and hadn’t seen since.” 

For grace after meals, diners found themselves singing from benchers which had been used at family simchas. Members of the organising committee had collected the books from families still living in the city.

Jonathan Arkush, Board of Deputies president, congratulated a community “which has punched above its weight”. Name-checking one of his predecessors, Hull-born Judge Israel Finestein, he said the Board worked “to protect the Jews of Hull just as much as the Jews of Hendon”.

For Howard Levy, co-president of Hull Hebrew Congregation, which planned the event, it was a day to remember the many Jewish shops and businesses once dotted around the city.

“It is without doubt that our Jewish community has contributed in so many ways over many generations to the health, wealth and vibrancy of this part of Yorkshire,” he said.

It was an emotional day for the city’s remaining Jews. Despite maintaining two synagogues — one Orthodox, the other Reform — and numerous charity committees and annual events, it is one of many provincial communities on a downward spiral. 

There was an unspoken understanding that there would probably never be another mass gathering of Jews in Hull. Max Gold, Mr Levy’s co-president at the shul, offered a suitably sentimental view.

“I want to think that today, the souls of our ancestors, those people who founded this community, are looking down on us and they are not displeased with what we’ve done,” he said.

“In world Jewish history, Hull was vital. Some half a million Jews passed through Hull, fleeing persecution and pogroms. We must thank our non-Jewish friends, many of whom are present here today, for the kindness, the hospitality and the consideration they have shown us.”

He also praised the efforts of the Orthodox shul’s current rabbi, Naftoli Lifschitz — the “best pastoral minister we have had in Hull for a long time”, and a key figure in ensuring the community’s continuation.

Thomas Martin, High Sheriff of the East Riding of Yorkshire, was so taken by the event that he rose to give an impromptu address.

“I’ve observed the excitement and shrieks of reunion and I’ve observed the next generation taking it forward. You have created so much and you have so many reasons to celebrate — toda rabah,” he said.

But fittingly, it was Mrs Anson, one of the Hull expats, who summed up the day. “It was like an El Al flight. People were told to sit down and listen to the speeches but they just wanted to stand and talk to each other.”

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