How can we raise the profile of Medieval Jewish Oxford?
Address to Oxford Jewish Congregation by Dr Evie Kemp Rosh Hashanah 2006
Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah!
I would like to start by inviting everyone here to shut their eyes for a moment.
I want to take you all on a journey 750 years back in time to the year 1256.
We are all still in Oxford, we are all still in synagogue, and we are all still celebrating Rosh Hashanah 5017. The shule of course is not situated here but is in the heart of the Medieval Jewish quarter on a street named Great Jewry, now known as St Aldates. Imagine a narrow, medieval roadway unpaved, fetid and ankle deep in refuse. Your houses are situated a short walk from shule, and many are built out of stone in sharp contrast to those of your non Jewish neighbours which are constructed from wood. The stone houses of course, make a safe refuge in times of trouble. Do open your eyes and I’ll show you examples of the latest fashionable medieval Jewish headgear for shule. (Show hats) Men you may have been wearing the green grey pointed Jewish hat and the women a simple, wimple following local fashion trends. On a more serious note, a few years later you would all have had to wear the yellow felt Jewish badge, sewed onto the left side of your robes. Here’s one we made earlier. Just imagine the humiliation of walking round Oxford marked out in this way.
Medieval Jewish Oxford is a fascinating subject which I first looked at for my bat mitzvah project with Miriam Kochan 33 years ago. To be honest it is not a topic I have thought about much since, until we had a request to make it the theme of this years Kaytana. For those of you who don’t know Kaytana is our annual community children’s summer scheme, organized under the auspices of Oxford WIZO. Kaytana aims to immerse our children in a positive Jewish experience through informal education, and we have covered many aspects of Jewish History in the past. Last summer a visiting Israeli boy who has participated in Kaytana for the past few years asked: ‘Evie, we’ve looked at Jewish history from all over the world, but what about the Jews of Oxford?’
This really set me thinking, and reminded me that we have our very own Jewish history right here. I decided that Kaytana this year would cover the medieval Jews of Oxford, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and the 350th anniversary of the Jewish reentry into England that we are commemorating this year. This started me on a journey of research on the subject. I am a medical doctor and not a historian but luckily I have a Jewish historian in the family to turn to. In my parents’ study I found several books written by my late Great-Uncle Cecil Roth including The Jews of Medieval Oxford and A life of Menasseh ben Israel. I would like to share some snapshots of that history with you today and hopefully leave you with some food for thought over the yamim noraim.
So first a bit of historical background: The first Jews were brought to London from France by William the Conqueror, and gradually spread down river and settled in Oxford from 1075. At that time Oxford was the sixth largest town in England with a population of 5000 inhabitants. The Jewish population grew slowly to a maximum of around 200 people. As very careful records were kept of all Jewish financial transactions, we have amazing maps showing which houses were owned by Jews and the names of the people who lived in them.
What might Jewish day to day life have been like here? Well many of the Jewish community would have been working as money lenders and pawn brokers in the town. The reason for this was two fold; Christians were forbidden from practicing usury and the Jews were banned from joining the Christian town guilds and therefore could not enter many professions. As the University grew more and more students needed to borrow money for tuition fees and accommodation (nothing changes does it?), they would come to the Jewish pawnbrokers to raise some cash to make ends meet. At one point so many books had been pawned to the Jewish community, that teaching at the University ground to a halt, and the students started rioting in protest!
Interestingly the money lending contracts were written on parchment in Hebrew, Latin and sometimes French, and were called starrs from the Hebrew word shetar meaning covenant. The standard rate of interest was incredibly high at 43%, and thus people were delighted to see you when they were borrowing money but less so when the time came to pay back. The university students also needed somewhere to live, and as Jews were allowed to own property, renting out rooms to students was a good business opportunity. Incredibly at one point the little Jewish community owned 10 percent of all the houses in Oxford. Jacob of Oxford owned 20 houses in the town and in 1266 sold one of them to Walter de Merton for the use of his recently established House of Scholars which became Merton, the first residential Oxford College.
However life as a Jew in Medieval Oxford was not easy and although the community certainly did participate in the economic and cultural life of the town, the Jews were always considered to be at best exotic and at worst strange and even evil outsiders.
The medieval kings believed they owned the Jews and levied huge taxes on the community to finance their latest war (such as the crusades) or little building plan (such as Westminster Abbey) If you couldn’t pay you would be imprisoned, have your property confiscated or even put to death. In exchange the Jews were in principle (but not always in practice) supposed to come under the King’s protection in times of trouble. Indeed the Jews of Oxford escaped anti Semitic riots on several occasions by sheltering in Oxford Castle. Gradually more and more restrictions were placed on the Jewish community including a ban on building new synagogues, travel restrictions round the country and an edict that Jews had to pray very quietly so that Christians would not be able to hear them. One can only speculate how hard it must have been for the shule council of the time to regulate this, and whether or not it was possible to still blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
Further laws forbidding the Jews to continue money lending were passed in 1275, and not surprisingly with their main source of income removed, the community slid into rapid decline. King Edward I came up with the final solution to his ‘English Jewish Problem’ and on 18th July 1290 he issued a proclamation expelling the 4000 English Jews from the country. The Hebrew date of the edict was Tishaba’av when many other tragic events have occurred in Jewish history. The Jews were allowed to take some money and personal belongings with them, but had to leave all their property behind. In Oxford the shule was turned into a tavern. Let’s jump forward to the year 1655, and look at the circumstances surrounding the reentry of the Jews to England. England had been officially Jew free for the past 365 years, though a few Marrano families had returned. Indeed some were working in Oxford teaching Hebrew at the University and helping Sir Thomas Bodley to catalogue the Hebrew manuscripts in his new library. The Marranos, also known as New Christians or secret Jews had fled from the Spanish Inquisition and forced Jewish conversion in Portugal. Although they were outwardly Catholic they would try to practice some Jewish rituals in secret.
To set the scene Charles the first had been executed a few years previously and Oliver Cromwell had become the Lord Protector of a new English Commonwealth.
Enter the main man of the story, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam. Menasseh was by all accounts an absolutely extraordinary man. He was of Portuguese Marrano descent, his family moving to Amsterdam soon after his birth, in order to live openly as Jews. Menasseh was a brilliant student and wrote his first book -a Hebrew grammar- at the age of 17, and was ordained as a rabbi at 20. He was also a teacher, merchant, author, and printer, had a sound knowledge of medicine and spoke 10 languages. Menasseh was an important community leader and was clearly enjoying a culturally and intellectually fulfilling life in Amsterdam, so what prompted him to move to England and petition Cromwell to let the Jews back in?
Firstly Menasseh was a mystic and believed in the prophecy found in the Book of Daniel which suggested that the messiah would only come after the Jews had been dispersed over the whole world. He also interpreted verse 64, chapter 28 of Dvarim (the prophecy of Moses) to back up his argument as follows: The Hebrew reads ‘Ve hefitzcha adoshem be chol ha’amim, mi ktze ha’aretz ve’ad ktze ha’aretz.’ This translates as ‘and the Lord shall scatter you among all people , from one end of the earth to the other’. In Medieval literature the term k’tze ha’aretz was translated as the angle of the earth, a literal translation of the French term for England- Angle-terre. To Menasseh’s mystical mind it seemed obvious that if the Jews were re introduced into k’tze ha’aretz that this would be one step further towards the coming of the messiah.
Secondly Menasseh had personal experience from his family and friends of the ongoing difficulties for the Marranos in Europe. There were simply very few places where Jews could live even secretly in peace. Public burnings of New Christians were continuing in Portugal, Jews could not live openly in France, and the Cossacks had swept through Poland massacring thousands of Jews in their path. Thus there was a very real practical need to find another country for Jews to live in.
And lastly though by no means least, on a personal level Menasseh became involved in shule politics (always a mistake!), had a massive bust up with the other Rabbi and fell out with one of the shule wardens (big ferrible) and decided it would be a good time to leave…..
Thus on September 2nd 1655 Menasseh set off for London. He arrived in mid September, and was welcomed by the small group of Marrano merchants trading and living in the City. Menasseh was an orthodox man and there is no doubt that his first task would have been to organize services for Rosh Hashanah. For the first time since the Jews were expelled in 1290 the walls of the city of London echoed with the sounds of the shofar. After the chagim, Menasseh set about his task, and it appears that Cromwell fell under the spell of his engaging personality and powers of persuasion. However it certainly helped that Cromwell’s puritan upbringing made him more open minded to the rights of other religious minorities. Cromwell was also personally acquainted with some of the very successful Marrano merchants in the city, and he could already see the positive effect they were having on the economy.
Menasseh presented Cromwell with a formal petition in November 1655 requesting the re-entry of the Jews to England along with the freedom to practice religion, trade and work in any profession and have equal rights to all other citizens.
Cromwell referred the petition to the Council of State, who like all good government bodies decided not to decide and convened a special committee to discuss it further. The special committee, like all good government committees also decided not to decide and planned a wider consultation. Letters were dispatched to 28 of the most brilliant men of the age, who were ordered to attend a Whitehall Conference on December 4th 1655.
The Conference quickly concluded that there was no law forbidding the Jews return to England, but despite reconvening 4 times could not agree on the terms of re-entry.
Cromwell dismissed the conference in disgust stating he would make a decision by himself, but several months passed and nothing happened. Public opinion was clearly anti-Semitic and Cromwell must have felt that the timing was never quite right. Menasseh stayed in London to lobby for the cause, dined at Cromwell’s table (presumably with special kosher food), met with leading thinkers of the time including Robert Boyle the scientist and even visited Oxford to look at the manuscripts in the Bodleian.
Menasseh still desperately craved an official response from Cromwell but it never came. Some historians speculate that Cromwell probably informally told the London Marrano community that they could act as if their petition had been granted. Thus in December 1656 a house in Cree Lane was rented for use as a synagogue, and shortly after land was acquired in Mile End as a burial ground. The resettlement of the Jews had never been officially authorized but had become a fait acomplis.
Menasseh went into a decline and ended up quarreling with the London Marrano group. He returned to Holland and died shortly after, a bitter and broken man, believing that he had failed in his quest. He was buried in Amsterdam and his epitaph read: ‘He is not dead; for in heaven he lives in supreme glory, whilst on earth his pen has won him immortal remembrance.’
Should we be commemorating the 350th anniversary this year? I personally think that the re-entry occurred with a whisper and not a bang and it is a very debatable issue. However it is clear that re-entry would not have occurred at that point without the vision and determination of Menasseh ben Israel. We owe him a great debt of gratitude and maybe that is reason enough for celebration.
I would like to end by returning to medieval Jewish Oxford where we began. I want to thank Jesmond Blumenfeld for drawing my attention to the thesis of a visiting American academic Elisa Narin van Court. Elisa describes medieval Jewish history in Oxford as almost invisible, and wonders why. There are of course two not very obvious plaques on the town hall marking Great Jewry and one in the Botanical gardens on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery, but that’s it. When I started researching for Kaytana I visited the Museum of Oxford and more recently the new Castle Museum but neither of them had any information on the subject. Why might this be? Elisa wonders whether this is subtle anti-Semitism or simply a desire to forget an uncomfortable part of English history. I personally do not feel there is any malicious intent but simply that there has been no one championing the cause, and we as a community are all to blame. I believe that we have a responsibility to make sure this amazing local Jewish history does not remain invisible in the future and would like to challenge you all to think of how this could be done. At the very least maybe a display corner somewhere in the center showing maps, pictures and a 3D model of the Jewish quarter, or perhaps we need to think of how we can raise the profile in the City as a whole particularly in light of the 1000 year celebrations of Oxfordshire due to take place in 2007? Do let me or Jesmond know your thoughts.
I want to leave you with three images of Rosh Hashanah over the years. Let your mind return to imagine the shofar being blown in the shule on Great Jewry in medieval times, with the congregants worrying whether they might be punished for making too much noise; imagine the excitement of Menasseh ben Israel blowing the shofar in the city of London for the first time in 365 years at the beginning of his quest for re-entry, and then return to the present and appreciate the fact that we can celebrate Rosh Hashanah here in Oxford today as free and equal citizens.
*Rosh Hashana 2006