Jewish High Holidays

Posted in anniversaries, on site by Editor on September 25, 2012

On Site

With Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) beginning this evening at sundown, it seems like an appropriate time to note an exceptional piece of eighteenth-century English architecture: the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, the oldest synagogue in Britain, with a history of continuous worship stretching back 311 years. I was one of 2000 fortunate people to visit the building on Sunday in conjunction with London’s annual Open House weekend.

Joseph Avis, The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, 1701

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A short walk from the Aldgate Tube stop and historically just north of the actual gateway, the Bevis Marks Synagogue was completed in September 1701, the work of Joseph Avis, a Quaker carpenter who had previously worked with Christopher Wren on St Bride’s in Fleet Street. With a few exceptions, the interior and furnishings of this Grade I listed building are original. Some of the benches, in fact, date to the middle of the seventeenth century, when the community met in the upper floor of a house in nearby Creechurch Lane.

It was under Cromwell that these Spanish and Portuguese Jews–many of whom had strong ties to Amsterdam–were legally recognized and allowed to practice their faith openly (in addition to the right to a space for worship, they were granted permission to establish a cemetery). Services today are carried out almost entirely in Hebrew, though there are two exceptions: announcement are made in Portuguese, and prayers for the Queen are said in English.

Architecturally, the building relates to contemporary dissenting traditions and corresponds to the rebuilding of the fifty-one churches by Wren. One of the points I took away from the visit was simply how easy and useful it would be to include the Bevis Marks Synagogue when teaching Wren and the reconstruction of London following the Great Fire. It would provide a physically tangible way to engage the history of Jews in England, looking both backward and forward. One could, for instance, address the arrival of Jews with William the Conqueror, the expulsion under Edward I in 1290, and the migration of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula after 1492. Looking forward into the eighteenth century, I would like to know more about The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which was formally established on the accession of George III to the throne in 1760. With the synagogue, the character and limits of religious tolerance in the period are nicely introduced.  As I’m really just thinking aloud here, I’m sure many of you who teach have already been doing
this and doing it well in your classes–so by all means feel free to chime in
with suggestions.

To all those keeping the fast, G’mar Tov.


2 Responses

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  1. Michael Yonan said, on September 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    This is so fascinating, Craig. Thanks for sharing. Despite the region’s horrendous history, there is actually some surviving 18C Jewish architecture in Central Europe. Much of it is rebuilt or reconstructed, but interesting things are still there. Prague in particular has a mostly intact Jewish quarter, the Josefov, with a number of synagogues. The Jewish Town Hall in Prague even has a rococo facade!


    Somewhat later is the Óbuda Synagogue in Budapest, built in a Neoclassical manner and dating from the early 19C. This is a subject I would really like to see get more scholarly attention. Jewish art and architecture in 18C Europe. Probably very tough to research, but I’ll bet there’s stuff out there and great diversity of expression.

  2. Editor said, on September 26, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Thanks, Michael, and by all means I agree it’s a topic with rich possibilities across the period in Europe and the New World. My information came from Richard Barnett and Abraham Levy’s small guidebook, The Bevis Marks Synagogue, first published in London in 1970, and from the brief presentation for the open house visitors on Sunday. One imagines in this particular case, a building used continuously for three centuries, there would be a rich archival trail of some sort. Perhaps it’s an issue of language skills matching scholarly interests: presumably one needs a relatively firm grounding in Hebrew, Portuguese, probably Spanish, and likely Dutch. Still, I’m left wondering how much could be done on the building side and the reception history simply from English sources (Samuel Pepys visited the congregation in Creechurch Lane in 1663). I’ve no idea. -CH

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