The history of Jews in this country over the last 362 years can be traced back to just one man.
In 1650, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel published Tikvat Yisrael (The Hope of Israel). Written in Amsterdam, its central premise was based on the scriptural passage which described the Jews being scattered “to all corners of the earth” prior to the arrival of the Messiah.
How could the Messiah come, argued Rabbi ben Israel, when there was a corner of the earth — England — where Jews were forbidden to dwell?
The book was translated into English in 1652 and the arguments it presented were the basis, four years later, for the decision by Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews back into England, 366 years after they had been expelled.
Vicki Ambery-Smith, a silversmith with decades of experience, was approached by Dr Barry Laden about a very special project 18 months ago.
Dr Laden, a fashion entrepreneur and book-collector, possessed a copy of Tikvat Yisrael — and he wanted her to create a silver binding for it.
“I’ve always been quite fascinated by silver [book] bindings, especially those produced in Venice and Amsterdam in the 18th century,” Dr Laden, who received an MBE in 2011 for services to the fashion industry, said.
“I always wondered if it would be possible to create a modern version of a silver book binding, where the books slot in to the bindings.”
Dr Laden’s mother’s family moved to England from Amsterdam in the 1800s. He decided that, out of his collection, his copy of Tikvat Yisrael, as something by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, “seemed absolutely right to cover. “I do have quite a few of his books, which is wonderful,” he said.
“There’s even a handwritten note in one of them, which was written not by him but a very early owner, which says ‘printed by Menasseh ben Israel, who tried to buy St Paul’s cathedral’ — a fascinating bit of history.”
That is a reference to an uncorroborated story about Rabbi ben Israel seeking a site for incoming Jews to use as a synagogue.
The old St Paul’s Cathedral, which was in some disrepair at the time — and was destroyed by the fire of London a decade later — was supposedly considered as a possibility for purchase.
But Dr Laden said “other books of his [Rabbi ben Israel’s] were very small and were not really of a size where they could be comfortably covered.
“I thought it [Tikvat Yisrael] was a sad little book inasmuch as it didn’t look great; in terms of this vellum binding, it wasn’t fabulous.
“I felt it needed to be enhanced, so I’m always of the opinion that if you think something’s a negative, turn it into a positive.”
Mrs Ambery-Smith, who is not Jewish, had made silver boxes before, “but nothing quite like this — certainly not a project like this, with such an interesting history.
“I was coming at this completely new,” she said.
“I didn’t know what the book was. I had the book here. Knowing its scarcity and importance I didn’t sleep a wink the first night the book was here. We have a safe and it was tucked in there, but I just thought ‘what if, what if?’.
“I showed it to some local Jewish friends; one nearly fell off his chair and said ‘do you know what this is?’.”
In order to prepare for the commission, the silversmith visited the British Museum and the V&A to look at their collection of silver-bound books.
She also visited the oldest synagogue in Britain, Bevis Marks.
“Bevis Marks is a small version of the synagogue in Amsterdam,” she said. “Having been there, the [shul’s] ark was the starting point [of the design].”
Dr Laden had also asked for vines and olive branches to be included, because they were referenced in the book. His initials, beit and lamed in Hebrew, were inscribed in two arches at the top of the ark.
The design, Mrs Ambery-Smith said, had changed during the process. At the British Museum and V&A she had seen silver-bound books, but “in those cases they were literally attached — bolted, riveted, drilled. I didn’t want to do any of that, because I didn’t want to alter or permanently fix anything to the book at all.
“My first idea was effectively for a silver cover to the book, a bit like a hardback book is covered with a loose folding round it,” she said.
However, she came to realise “it wouldn’t work, because the softness of the book wouldn’t tolerate the weight of the silver. That was very important to know and to realise that it had to be a container, a box, rather than a binding.”
The box was finally finished earlier this month and Dr Laden described the results as “a wonderful thing”.
“It’s not shiny silver, as those 17th century bindings were — initially I wasn’t sure about that,” he said.
“But actually it’s wonderful. If you have something really shiny, you’re looking at it and you see yourself or it reflects other things, and actually, you want to look at it.
“So it’s unpolished because it soaks up the light and therefore you can see it properly for what it is.
“Now this book sits housed in its silver box-binding, I feel it has the respect it should have and deserves.”