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An insider’s look at Jewish London

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The Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor building in London's East End. (Nancy Wigston photo)

We met London Walks guide Rachel Kolsky outside the Tower Hill tube station on a sunny May morning. Bright and energetic, Kolsky gathered us around, holding a colourful cloth flower that she uses to signal her presence on the busy streets of a city that was originally founded by Romans.

We were in good hands, as Rachel has co-authored a book on Jewish London and, in her words, is “the fastest walking, fastest talking” London Walks guide. Although people often think of the East End in its 1880s incarnation, its streets teeming with pogrom-fleeing Russians and Poles, London’s Jewish history is far older than that.

William the Conqueror (1028-1087) brought northern French Jews with him to his newly conquered kingdom. Over 200 years later, in 1278, 600 Jews were living in England. Free from prohibitions against credit and usury, Jews were considered a government “cash cow,” says Kolsky, and were protected by the sheriffs.

But things changed under Edward I’s reign, when hundreds of Jews were executed, after being accused of coin clipping (cutting silver from money) and counterfeiting. The surviving Jews were ordered to leave the country. Still, some stayed, notably Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, who served as physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I and ended up meeting a gruesome demise.

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Jews were invited back to the country in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, who “needed good Dutch-Jewish merchants,” according to Kolsky. First Sephardim, then Ashkenazim, began to settle in Aldgate, where the Jewish quarter took root once again. Today, the U.K. has an official Jewish population of 270,000, which is probably an underestimate, according to Kolsky, since that number is based solely on synagogue membership.

A sign at Sandy’s Row Synagogue. (Nancy Wigston photo)

Following our expert into the heart of streets that were, according to Kolsky, “always a refuge for the unwanted, therefore a miserable, crime-ridden area,” we paused near a plaque commemorating The Great Synagogue, which stood near the site until 1272. Today, everywhere we looked, we saw professionals and university students chatting and enjoying early lunches, in the shadows of high-rise buildings.

Yet, with Kolsky’s guidance, an almost-vanished Jewish world emerged, with its rich assortment of personalities and architecture. So-called “civic disabilities” banned Jews (as well as Roman Catholics and Quakers) from many professions, and despite Cromwell’s welcome, Jewish houses of worship had to be “discreet.” Among the new synagogues was the Great Synagogue, which was built in 1609 and destroyed in 1941, during the Blitz. When Samuel Pepys visited there in 1663, he wrote in his diary about how shocked he was to see “merry” worshippers drinking wine and dancing, unaware, says Kolsky, that he had happened on the festival of Simchat Torah.

Bevis Mark Synagogue. (Nancy Wigston photo)

The Bevis Marks Synagogue remains an outstanding example of a “discreet” house of worship. It was designed by Quaker architect Joseph Avis in the style of Christopher Wren, the major influence on London’s post-Great Fire reconstruction. Built in 1701, Bevis Marks is the oldest operating synagogue in the United Kingdom. Its eight brass chandeliers are lit with candles for special events and services, a sight Kolsky described as “beyond beautiful.”

Although the opening of London’s first underground route (Farringdon-Paddington) in 1863 hastened the exit of many Jews from the area, this building is still used by many Sephardim working in The City (as London’s financial district in known).

In fact, there’s a bit of a renaissance going on, according to Kolsky, with outreach events that include Hawaiian shirts and chocolate parties, a pop-up kosher restaurant and a community centre that’s in the works next door.

Famous names associated with Bevis Marks include the Montefiore family. In the family’s reserved seats, luminaries like Prince Charles, Prince Philip and former British prime minister Tony Blair have been honoured guests.

The East End’s 17th-century cultural tapestry had included French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution. Many were silk weavers, residing in multi-story brick homes with striking light-filled ateliers. These buildings eventually became home to Jewish garment makers. Today, these tall terrace houses, which have been elegantly restored, sparkle like gems. Kolsky says that in the 1960s and ’70s, when housing was far cheaper than it is today, artists were attracted to their well-lit spaces.

Listening to our guide, it’s clear that the East End has absorbed successive waves of immigrants and refugees. Brick Lane, once the beating heart of the garment trade, boasts a single Jewish garment business today, amid a slew of Bangladeshi and other ethnic eateries. On the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane stands a mosque, which was originally built as a Huguenot church, before existing for many years as a synagogue.

An East London streetscape. (Nancy Wigston photo)

Perhaps the East End’s liveliest signature remains the stalls selling old and new clothing, shoes, jewelry and goods of almost every description. Bustling clothing markets had appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries, the most famous being the Sunday market called Petticoat Lane (today’s Middlesex Street), where over 1,000 stalls operate to this day.

Still, Victorian Jews – like other Victorians – often lived in the “miserable, crime-ridden” streets described by Kolsky. (It’s no coincidence that another popular tour focuses on Jack the Ripper.) Masses of Russian and Polish Jews needed assistance, and they received it from The Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor. The Guardians’ 1859 brick building is now adorned with the colourful letters favoured by London street artist Ben Eine, a city legend whose work was gifted to former U.S. president Barack Obama by former British prime minister David Cameron.

A mural decorates the fascade of S. Schwartz. (Nancy Wigston photo)

Among the most photographed Jewish East End buildings may be the 1902 Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor. Its warm stone facade fascinates passersby, a reminder of past hard times and charity. It was an institution that endured well into the 20th century and is now home to flats and offices.

Another of Kolsky’s stops also involved food. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, both of whom were born in Jerusalem and met in London, operate several London eateries and have published numerous best-selling cookbooks. Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner have revolutionized English eating habits with Middle Eastern-inspired dishes, so when Kolsky’s tour concluded, there was no question about where to eat lunch. I felt certain that generations of immigrants would approve.