Kaytana is a weeklong day camp run in a field study center just outside Oxford. Fifty children from age 5 to 13 attended the camp that year. The scene is set each morning and afternoon when the youth leaders dress up and tell the historical story. That year Jacob of Oxford one of the leaders of the Medieval Oxford Jewish community told the story.
Here is the transcript as told by the youth leaders plus photos and information on some of the activities:
Jacob of Oxford comes in dressed up in medieval clothing and beard to set the scene.
Jacob Of Oxford
Jacob: “Good morning everyone, my name is Jacob of Oxford and I want to welcome you to Oxford Wizo Kaytana 2006. We are going to leave modern day Oxford behind and will journey back in time to the year 1075, that’s over 900 years ago.
“You need to imagine a very different Oxford: although it was the sixth largest town in England at that time it had no more than 5000 residents.
“The town was surrounded by a deep ditch and an earth mound to protect the inhabitants from attack. A few years later I remember the mound was replaced by a high stone wall with 4 town gates, which were shut and guarded at night.
“A large castle has just been built to the west of the town for our new French King, William the Conqueror. Ah speaking of William the Conqueror, I think he may be coming to meet you now. Remember that he is a French King and you need to say good morning to him in French. Does anyone know how to say good morning in French? (wait for someone to shout out bonjour) …Excellent, excellent you are right. Shall we all practice saying Bonjour together…(bonjour)…here he comes now. Everyone must stand up and get ready to bow down to him.”
(everyone gets up)
William the Conqueror: (riding up on a hobby horse)
Bonjour lowly peasants
Our William the Conqueror
The original William
Everyone: (bowing) Bonjour
Jacob: Your majesty how wonderful of you to come to see us today. I wondered if you would be gracious enough to tell us about how the first Jews came to England in Medieval times.
William: Well, does anyone remember the very famous date that I came to England with my army to fight the English King, Harold? Yes, well done it was in 1066. After I won the Battle of Hastings to take over the English throne I traveled on to London to set up my court and then sent word to France for some Jews to come to England to join me.
“We thought you Jews were a very strange bunch of people-you spoke a strange language, ate different food and worshipped in a very unusual way. In fact we all thought you were very weird indeed, and if truth be told, you were not well liked by the good Christians of my Kingdom. However you were very useful for a King to have around, very useful indeed….. In those days Christians were forbidden to lend money and so the Jews had taken on the role of moneylenders in society. Of course there were no banks, so whenever I needed to borrow money to build a new castle or go to war I used to borrow money from my Jews or order them to pay me special taxes. I say my Jews because in those days of course the Jews, themselves and all their belongings belonged to the King. In exchange the King would promise to protect the Jews when times got hard.
Jacob: Your Highness, thank you thank you, we were most grateful for your protection…can you remember when the first Jews settled in Oxford?
William: “Of course, of course, the Jews originally came to London but then spread down river and settled in Oxford from 1075.
“Now you horrible lowly peasants, I’ve spent enough time here talking with you. I have an important meeting to attend with my Barons. Au revoir
Jacob: Au revoir your highness
“Well, so we Jews arrived in Oxford in 1075 and very slowly a Jewish community built up here. The Jews all lived together for protection and we built many houses along a street that was called ‘Great Jewry’ which in your times is called St Aldates in the center of the town. Do any of you know it? We worked as money lenders, and owned pawn shops where people could exchange goods for money. Jews were not allowed to join the town guilds so there were many, many trades that we were not allowed to enter, though a few Jews did become doctors, craftsmen, teachers for our own sons and of course rabbis.
“Today we are going to build Medieval Jewish Oxford and the houses that bordered Great Jewry. Most ordinary people’s houses were made out of wood in those days, but the Jewish houses were often built of stone with large dug out cellars. We could store bags of money safely in the cellar, and if a mob of hooligans decided to go on an anti-Jewish rampage (which sadly occurred all too often as you will soon learn) we could go down to the cellar to hide, and not fear that the wooden houses would be burnt to the ground.
“Well my friends that’s enough for now. I have much more to tell you all about my life and that of my friends here in the Medieval Oxford Jewish community. Off you go to start building and I will see you all later.
“That day the children built Medieval Jewish Oxford. They painted murals prepared by artist David Paskett and made 3D models of Great Jewry Street circa 1235 showing the synagogue and houses of Jews such as Moses Ben Isaac and David of Oxford.
12th Century Jewish stone house in Lincoln
Medieval Oxford Jewish stone house
Hard at work painting
Medieval Jewish Oxford street scene
Making a 3D model of Great Jewry Street. The synagogue has a blue Magen David on the roof
Jacob: “Well my friends, how lovely to see you again. You have all been working so hard- medieval Jewish Oxford is coming along splendidly!
“In the first years that we Jews lived in England we generally got on quite well with our non Jewish neighbours. However time has now moved on to the year 1144. I have received terrible news today from my brother in Norwich about some horrifying and untrue accusations against our race. The story is as follows. A young apprentice tanner called William was found dead on some scrubland outside the town. Do any of you know what a tanner was? (Wait for reply)Yes that’s right a tanner worked with animal skins and turned them into leather.
“Well, the local people including the Church leaders accused us Jews of killing this poor boy. They have been saying that Jews need Christian blood in the springtime as an ingredient for making matza. Well did you ever hear anything so crazy and ridiculous? …and of course they had no proof to back up these terrible lies, none at all.
“An angry mob gathered in the centre of the town calling for revenge and my brother feared for his life as the mob chanted “death to the Jews, death to the Jews who kill little Christian boys to take their blood”
“Thank goodness the local sheriff intervened on behalf of the King and saved the Jews from the mob (remember the King believed that he owned the Jews and was supposed to protect them in times of trouble).
“My friends these events in Norwich have stirred up much anti Jewish feeling and I implore you to be vigilant and take care, lest the same happen to us here in Oxford. Look after yourselves well tonight and I hope to see all of you here again on the morrow.
“I bid you farewell!”
Jacob: “Good morning my friends, I trust you slept well. Welcome back to Medieval Jewish Oxford. Do you remember yesterday I told you that in those days we Jews were often working as money lenders, bankers and pawn shop operators, partly because we were not allowed to do many other types of work, and partly because Christians were not allowed to lend money? The standard rate of interest in those days was incredibly high at 43%. That means that if I lent you one pound you would have to pay me back one pound and forty three pence in today’s money. If people couldn’t or didn’t want to pay back the money, we unfortunately had to go and ask them which could cause a lot of upset and bad feeling. Although we did use pounds, old shillings and pence, most deals were done in MARKS, where one mark was equivalent to eight ounces of pure silver.
“Jews were however allowed to own property and at one point we owned one in ten of all the houses in Oxford. This was really useful after the University started up after 1167 as we could let out rooms to students who came here to study. Often the students would need to borrow money too and they would bring us their books to keep in exchange for the money we lent to them. At one point the University couldn’t carry on teaching as we Jews had nearly all of the books in the town, which led to a huge riot.
“We are still called the King’s Jews and belong to the King; in exchange we continue in principle to be under his protection. But every year the King asks for more and more money in taxes and it is becoming more and more difficult to pay……Oh no!! I think I see the new King coming now, his name is King Richard the First. Prepare to bow down at once
(King Richard enters with sword and shield, everyone bows down)
Richard:”Get up you miserable Jews I have news for you! I have decided to follow in my dead father’s footsteps and plan a holy war. I will gather an army and set off to the Holy Land to free it from the non believers. The journey will be long and hard and will take many months, but we will succeed. I will call this quest my own Crusade and may G-d give me strength to throw the infidels out of the holy city of Jerusalem!!”
Jacob: (bowing) “Your highness, we wish you luck in your crusade (as an aside to the rest of the group) and hope he doesn’t kill too many of our fellow Jews along the way like his father did…..”
Richard: “Luck, luck!!! I need more than luck!! Why did you think I came here today?? I need money, loads and loads of money to pay for my trip. I need 10,000 marks by the end of the week. If I don’t receive every last mark I will throw you all in jail and take your houses if necessary to pay!! Do you miserable Jews understand?
“Now go count your money!!”
Jacob: “But…but…sire we do not have that huge amount of money……”
Richard: “Silence you little worm. You will be the first to be thrown into Jail if the money is not collected in time.”
Jacob: “Oh dear oh dear here we go again!! Don’t panic too much this is always happening. You lot had better go off and make as much money as you can today and we’ll meet back here this evening. Making money is just one of the things you will be doing this morning. I hope you will enjoy experiencing medieval Oxford Jewish life. Goodbye and see you later.”
That day the children rotated round 4 activities
1. Making contracts: Money lending contracts were written on parchment in Hebrew, Latin and sometimes French. The contract was called a STARR from the Hebrew word shetar meaning covenant. Two copies of the contract were made sometimes on the same piece of parchment, which was then cut across the middle. One was kept by the Jewish money lender, and the other was kept in a special chest called an ARCHA or chirograph chest. The archa had 4 locks, the keys being separately held by two Jewish and two Christian trustees.
Writing a contract on parchment with special ink pens
Archa chest showing the four locks
Our Archa chest full of completed contracts
2. Adding wax seals to the contracts: Each moneylender had their own seal to use on the completed starr. Mildegod wife of David of Oxford had a seal with a bird (pheasant or peacock) with a reptile in its mouth (possibly a scorpion) and Latin wording. Jacob of Oxford had a seal that depicted the lion of Judah.
Adding wax and a seal
Completed contracts and seals
3. Making costumes:
Jewish men wore a distinctive pointed green Jewish hat.
The biblical prophet wearing his green Jewish hat, adapted from a medieval fresco in the Holy Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral. Image copyright by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Winchester, 2008
Making our own pointed Jewish hats
The women wore the fashionable coif and wimple of the period
Abigail wife of Mosse-Mokke of Norwich 1233. From a caricature in the Roll of Exchequer 1233
Examples of our own wimples
From 1275 all Jews over the age of 7 were forced to wear a Jewish badge in the shape of two stone tablets (10 commandments). It was made of yellow felt and measured 6 by 3 inches, to be worn over the left breast. (There are separate accounts, which state that the Jews of Oxford had been forced to wear a yellow star from 1222.)
Picture of Jews being beaten showing Jewish badge from English medieval manuscript
Making yellow felt Jewish badges
4. Making medieval money and learning about coin clipping: Before the Royal Mint introduced moulded coins with defined edging it was possible, as well as common to illegally clip silver and other metals away from the outer edges of a coin to use for other purposes. Jews were sometimes accused of this crime.
Weighing out coins
Jacob: “My friends, good morning! I trust you all slept well. Time has moved on since we last met and we are now in the year 1253. There is a new King on the throne of England and his name is Henry the Third. He is a greedy and unpleasant man who demands taxes off us Jews at every available moment. He is due to come here any minute and I fear there will be further bad news for us poor Jews.
Here comes King Henry now, let us hear what he has to say but I am quaking in my shoes for he is an evil man……
King Henry III enters with a large roll of parchment- everyone boos
King Henry: “Miserable Jews who stand before your King today, I have come here in person to announce the new restrictions that I am placing upon you. Listen carefully and obey!
1. No Jew shall remain in England unless he performs some service for the King. As soon as possible after birth any Jew male or female shall serve me in some manner.
2. There will be no new synagogues built in England.
3. Jews shall worship in their synagogues in a subdued tone, in such a way that Christians will not be able to hear them.
4. All Jews shall answer to the rector of their local church in whose parish they reside.
5. No Christian man or woman shall be the servant of any Jewish man or woman, nor eat, nor stay with them in their home.
6. No Jewish man or woman shall eat or buy meat during Lent.
7. No Jew or Jewess shall marry a Christian man or woman.
8. Every Jew shall display his Jewish badge upon his chest.
9. No Jew shall enter any Church or chapel except in passing.
10. No Jew shall hinder any other Jew who wishes to convert to Christianity.
11. No Jew shall be allowed in any town without special license from the King, except in those towns where Jews are allowed to normally live.
“If you do not obey these new rules I will take away your belongings, I will seize your houses and I will throw you into Jail!!
“I hope the King is making himself clear.”
King Henry sweeps out…
Jacob: “This is terrible, terrible! I knew things were bad but I never expected this. Never! Never! We are becoming the King’s pawns to do with as he wishes…..Thank goodness we Oxford Jews already have our own Synagogue on Great Jewry so we do not need to worry that we cannot build a new one……but we will have to learn to pray in a whisper so we are not heard by our neighbours. Our synagogue is opposite St Aldates church and near St Frideswide’s Priory. If they hear us praying aloud they will be only too happy to inform the sheriff who will tell the King…I must go now as these restrictions on travel will affect my business plans and I must take counsel on what to do. Go to your houses and try to continue normal life as best you can. I will see you later. Farewell!!”
That day the children made and played Medieval Jewish Oxfordopoly. This was based on the real streets in the Medieval Oxford Jewish town.
Title deed cards
The money used was the mark-one mark was equivalent to 8 ounces of pure silver. There were King’s Chance cards and Community Archae Chest cards. Examples of commands on the cards included; ‘The King has demanded a new tax to pay to build Westminster Abbey. You are unable to pay so must go to the City Jail. Move directly to Jail, do not pass GO, do not collect 200Marks’ and’ It is Rosh Hashanah go back to the Synagogue’ and ‘You have been accused of coin clipping. Fine 20 Marks’
Playing the game
Jacob: “My friends how did you enjoy playing Medieval Jewish Oxfordopoly this morning? Excellent, excellent!
“Well sadly since this morning our situation has become even worse. King Henry taxed us over and over again and by the time he died in 1272 our once prosperous Jewish community was penniless. Thus the new King, Edward the First inherited a Jewish community that could not pay any more taxes and that worries me, worries me a lot. For what will become of us Jews if the King decides that we are no longer of any use to him??…..The Church is also turning even further against us and is calling for an end to all money lending. But look, here comes another member of our Oxford community, Samuel of Birkhampstead.
“Samuel Shalom, Shalom! How wonderful to see you today! To what do we owe this pleasure?”
Samuel: “Alas my friend Jacob, I do not come for pleasure but have just received a report from King Edward’s court in London this year 1275. I rushed here immediately to bring you and the rest of our community the news. The King has issued new laws which he is calling ‘the Statutes of the Jews’. He is forbidding Jews to work as moneylenders or pawnbrokers from now onwards. Jews can only live in towns that have an archa and all Jews over the age of 7 must wear the yellow Jewish badge at all times.”
Jacob: “But Samuel, how will we be able to make a living if we cannot lend money? What will we do?”
Samuel: “The new law states that Jews will be allowed to rent land to farm.”
Jacob: “But Samuel we Jews haven’t been allowed to farm for hundreds of years. I hardly know the difference between the front and back end of a cow!! You can’t take up farming just like that.”
Samuel: “Jacob I know that. We are also being encouraged to take up trades and handicrafts and will be allowed contact with Christians to trade.”
Jacob: “Handicrafts! Handicrafts! What do I know of handicrafts? And even if I knew the work of a tanner or say a brewer, we Jews are still not allowed to be members of guilds, and without guild membership one cannot work. Samuel what will become of us?”
Samuel: “Jacob my friend we must pray to G-d for only he can help us now…..I must go now to tell this sad news to the rest of my family. Shalom”
Jacob: “My friends I wish you good fortune in searching for new work for as you have just heard it will be very difficult. Let’s hope we can find something or else we will all starve…farewell for now.”
Jacob: “Fifteen long and difficult years have passed since we last met. King Edward has forbidden us to lend money and we have tried to make our living in other ways, but we have failed. Some starving Jews have ended up converting to Christianity and some have resorted to highway robbery. Some Jews were accused of coin clipping (shaving a little off the edges of coins) and as a result the whole of English Jewry was imprisoned in 1278 for a while and 293 Jews were executed in London. Times have been very very hard.”
“King Edward has called us all here to his palace today, the 18th July 1290 to make a proclamation. In our Hebrew calendar it is Tisha’ba’av or the 9th of Av, a fast day for religious Jews and a date when many very sad things occurred in Jewish History. In 2006 Tisha ba’av begins tonight, so that means this meeting took place exactly 716 years ago….spooky coincidence or what?…. But here comes King Edward; everyone rise and bow down before him. In a minute we will learn our fate.”
(All rise and bow down)
King Edward: “To the Jews of my Kingdom:
“Jews, you have failed to find new employment over the last fifteen years, have become useless and poor, and can no longer be called upon when I need to raise money. Some of you have been caught trying to lend money and some have been found persuading Jewish converts to Christianity to return to Judaism. Both of these are crimes against my Kingdom and therefore against the King. My patience has been tried to the limit, and I have been searching long and hard for a solution to the Jewish Problem in England. On this date the 18th day of the month of July in the year of our lord twelve hundred and ninety I am making the following proclamation:
“All Jews are to be expelled from England never to return. I give you three months to make arrangements to leave before the Feast of All Saints on the first of November. You may take your money and personal belongings with you, but must leave your houses and property. You will travel to London and will make ready to cross the sea to France. I will tell all the wardens, officers and sailors of the Cinque Ports to make sure you are unharmed and you, your wives, your children and your belongings will have a safe passage. I will make a proclamation that the Jews should not be injured, molested, harmed or impeded in any way during their expulsion.”
King Edward I reading the Proclamation
The Jews of Medieval Oxford listening to Edward I reading the Proclamation to expel them from England
Jacob: “Around 4,000 English Jews packed up their belongings and made ready for the journey to France. In Oxford all of our property was given to a senior member of the Church and much of it was later turned into student lodgings.
“Unfortunately the sea crossing to France was very hazardous in those days. Several ships sunk with the loss of all their passengers. However the captain of one of the largest ships played a terrible trick on the Jews on board. Here is the Captain of the ship now to tell you about the dastardly plot. Captain tell us your gruesome story…
Captain: “Well me hearties I’m a poor captain I am, and the crew and I look at every available opportunity to make some money to keep body and soul together. Ooh ahh!”
“The Jews boarded my boat with their entire luggage in London town, and we set off down the Thames towards the sea. We reached the mouth of the river at a place called Queensborough and we set down the anchor. The tide went out and our ship got stuck hard on the sands. I got off the ship to take a stroll on the sands and invited all the Jewish passengers to follow me. The Jews spent several hours amusing themselves upon the sands; it was a great novelty for them. They were enjoying themselves so much that they failed to notice that the tide was coming back in, and that I had tiptoed back to the ship. By the time they realized what was happening and the grave danger they were in, the tide was coming in thick and fast. They ran to the edge of the sands and implored me to let them back on board, but I being a villainous scoundrel refused. I called down to them and said: “Don’t ask me for help, ask your prophet Moses; if he could get your forefathers across the Red Sea he’s bound to help you out of this!!” Then I left them to the mercy of the waves and each and every one of them was drowned….. I shared their luggage out that night amongst the crew, but kept their silver candlesticks for myself! Ooh ahh! I feel no remorse-it must be the pirate blood I have inherited from my ancestors!! AH ha ha ha!!”
The sea captain telling his terrible story
Jacob:(Shuddering) “Well what a terrible story. The Captain doesn’t know it yet but his dastardly deeds came to light and he was caught and tried by the Justices in Kent. He was convicted of murder…and hanged.
“Well many of us made it across the Channel and started a new life in France and some of us went further to Spain. So good luck to all of you in your new lives! I hope some of you can speak a little French or you are going to find things a little difficult.
“Well that’s the end of our story for today so I bid you all au revoir -see you again tomorrow.”
Jacob: “Bon jour everyone. I hope you have been enjoying your new lives in France and Spain since we were all expelled from England yesterday. Unfortunately the Jews were also expelled from Spain around two hundred years later. Some Jews pretended that they had converted to Christianity but continued practicing Judaism in secret and were called Marranos. A few Marrano families settled in England but could not live openly as Jews. The most famous of these was a man called Roderigo Lopez who became a doctor to Queen Elizabeth the First. A few Marranos also lived in Oxford and helped Sir Thomas Bodley to catalogue Hebrew manuscripts for his new library.
“Well 365 years passed without any Jews openly living in England. English history was very complicated back then. In short Parliament got fed up with how badly the King was behaving and chopped off his head. For a few years Oliver Cromwell ruled the country as a republic and was more like a president than a King.
“Anyway I want you to meet a very important friend of mine, not just a friend but also a Rabbi. His name is Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, and he has come all the way from Amsterdam in Holland to meet you, and more importantly to meet Oliver Cromwell too.”
(Enter Menasseh ben Israel in Dutch costume with large hat)
Jacob: “Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel how wonderful to see you! Did you have a good sea journey from Holland?
Menasseh: “My good friend Jacob, how marvelous to be with you! The journey was long and arduous but it warms my heart to greet you and meet all your friends here today.
Jacob: “Tell me Rabbi, why have you come all the way from Holland to meet our Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell?
Menasseh: “Well Jacob, I believe that times are changing and I have come to ask Oliver Cromwell to allow us Jews to return to England and live in peace with our Christian neighbours. I have brought a petition with me that I intend to read out to him, with all of you here as my witnesses. Do you think he will be long?”
Jacob: “No look here he comes now.”
Enter Oliver Cromwell
Menasseh: “Your most serene Highness, I come here today on behalf of my Hebrew Nation to ask you great favours. May G-d prosper you and give you much success in your undertakings.
Oliver: “Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel I am ready to hear your plea, begin!”
Menasseh: “Your Highness!
“We ask you to admit our Hebrew Nation into this mighty Republic under your protection and care.”
“We also request that your Highness will allow us public synagogues and permit us to practice our religion in all details as we should
“We should be allowed to have a plot or cemetery outside the city for burying our dead without being molested by anyone, and have a Rabbi to judge arguments within our community.
“We must also be allowed to trade freely in all sorts of merchandise just like all other nations.
“If your most serene Highness grants us these things we will always be most attached to you and under obligation to pray to G-d for the prosperity of your Highness and of your illustrious and most sage Council. May it be his will to grant much success to all the undertakings of your most serene Highness. Amen. This petition is signed the 13th November 1655 (Finishing with a deep bow to Oliver)”
Oliver: “Rabbi, I listen to your plea with interest. I will convene a conference at Whitehall next month, December 1655 to discuss your requests with members of my Council, business men, lawyers and church clergy. I bid you good day. (Oliver exits)”
Jacob: “The conference took place but unfortunately no decision was made. However by the next year 1656 Jews started living openly in London and praying in each others houses. The first synagogue was completed in the City of London the following year…..”
Rabbi (Turning to Menasseh): “We all have much to thank you for.”
“Well you lot don’t just sit there, we’ve all been allowed to come back and live in England. Gather your belongings, we’re moving in!!”
Jacob: “Good morning everyone! It was great coming back to live openly as Jews in England again yesterday. Thank goodness old Menasseh ben Israel had enough guts to come and petition Oliver Cromwell, or none of us might be living here today.
“In fact many special events have been planned this year to celebrate three hundred and fifty years of Jewish life in England since our re-entry; and this years Kaytana is just one of them.
“But today we are going back to Medieval Jewish Oxford for a morning of action, drama and suspense!
“Farewell my friends, we will meet again later!”
The whole kaytana put on a short version of Pamela Melnikoff’s play The Ransomed Menorah with kind permission of the author. The playscript featured two brave medieval Jewish children who survived a massacre and were making their way to the safety of relatives in Oxford, somehow meeting up with Robin Hood on route.
Putting on the play The Ransomed Menorah
By the end of the week a whole new generation of children had experienced Medieval Jewish Oxford, learned about the Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and the readmission under Oliver Cromwell, whilst also having an amazing and fun time. Many thanks to my co-organiser Lizzie Maisels and all the youth leaders and parents who helped to made it possible.