Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Jews who weren't meant to be there

This was the title of a lecture given at AACI Netanya by Elkan Levy, a well-known and popular speaker, who had been President of the United Synagogue and then Director for small Jewish communities in Britain. The conventional wisdom is that there were no Jews in Britain between 1290 ce, when they were expelled by King Edward I, and 1650 ce, when they were allowed to legally return by Oliver Cromwell, after representations by Dutch Rabbi Menassah Ben Israel. But, in fact there were always Jews in Britain during that hiatus of 360 years, and Elkan Levy seemed to know all of them personally. His mastery of facts and dates was indeed impressive.

First sketching the background, it is clear that not only did Jews arrive in Britain very early, with the Romans, but they also came with William the Conqueror after 1066 ce, and in fact were effectively in charge of the banking system in Britain during the early medieval period. This was because it was forbidden for Christians to make profit in dealings with other Christians, but Jews were allowed to loan money and make profit (usury) from Christians, although not from fellow Jews. But, the Jews were not free citizens, they were in fact owned and protected by the King and their debts were in effect repayable to the King. Over time the Jewish community became very wealthy, but this proved their downfall, since so many aristocrats and the King owed them money, to fund the building of castles and cathedrals and to pay for their involvement in the crusades, that it became expedient to expel the Jews and then burn the letters of credit. So in 1290 the King expelled the Jews, although he was upset that the letters of credit were burnt, since he would have been the ultimate beneficiary.

But, not all of the Jews of England left, there are records of many of them staying on, either as Jews, or Christians, or probably Secret Jews (like the Marranos of Spain). Some examples, King Henry IV had a Jewish doctor in ca. 1400 ce and so did Queen Elizabeth. He was Rodrigo Lopez, and he was a loyal subject, who used his extensive contacts in Spain to provide invaluable information to the Queen's Secretary of State Walsingham, who ran one of the first effective secret services in history. But, unfortunately his enemies conspired against Lopez and he was executed in 1594 for trying to poison the Queen, even though she apparently knew he was innocent.

King Henry VIII owned a set of the first printed editions of the Talmud and had people who could read it to him. He also had Jewish musicians imported from Italy. In cities in the north like York and Lincoln there had been large Jewish communities, and one of the oldest standing stone houses in England is in Lincoln and is still called "The Jew's house." Unfortunately the mass suicide of the Jewish community in York in 1190 when they were surrounded by a hostile mob in Clifford's tower largely ended their presence there. In London, there was an institution called the Convertorium where Jews who converted to Christianity could live at the King's expense. There are records dating back throughout this period, showing that there were always Jews who were prepared to convert in order to ensure a pleasant retirement.

Many Spanish former Jews or Marranos visited England and were later interrogated about their contacts when they returned to Spain and we know about this thru the records of the Inquisition. For example, a young man visited Bristol where he described an active Jewish community of several hundred souls, run by a woman known as Esther of Bristol. Apparently she was well-known and tolerated. There was a Spanish inn-keeper in East London during Shakespeare's time, who was almost certainly a Marrano, who had a beautiful daughter. There is a rumor that Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to her and that she was his famous "dark lady."

These are only a few of many anecdotes about Jews in Britain during the period in question. There were probably never more than ca. 5,000 Jews there at any time, out of a total population of ca. one million. But, that they were present and often accepted during the period of 1290-1650 is undoubted.


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