My husband and I have had reason to visit London many times in very different circumstances since our first experience with our three young children. Traveling from the States to Newcastle-upon-Tyne where my husband had a NATO Fellowship to collaborate at the university for a year, we were awed by London. Now, many years later, after three weeks in Cardiff, Wales we stopped in London on our way back to Chicago. This time we saw parts of London we had never seen before when we participated in a Context Travel Tour, Jewish London Walk.
We sought out Context Travel because we enjoyed our tour of Athens (http://www.lasplash.com/publish/International_151/Context_Athens_Review.php) and found it so illuminating, that we felt sure the London tour would be a valuable experience. On the tour, we were surprised that by placing the “Jewish” part of London in “context”, we also received a crash course on the history of Europe, London, England and living as an immigrant. I would strongly recommend this tour to visitors and residents, alike.
Our Guide, Ruth Shlovsky, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic snd clearly loves London. The information she shared was compelling and enhanced by the use of photos she had gathered from many sources. She brought drama to the stories she told so we had a sense of what it was like to live in the locations where we were standing, during different times. Streets were narrow, conditions were cramped, sanitation poor, food limited and so on. Beginning with the London of 43 AD and ending with the Kindertransport receiving point and lots of European History sandwiched in, we were spellbound by what we saw and heard. (An interesting parallel to the history in the U. S.)
The sundial outside of the Tower Hill Tube Station where London’s history can be seen on the base of the sundial in bronze images, was the perfect place for our tour to begin. From this point one can see the Tower of London (once London's tallest building) directly ahead, the Roman & Medieval City Wall to the left and to the right what will be the tallest building in the EU, a microcosm of London.
Ruth began explaining the background that preceded the arrival of the Jews in London. Thousands of years before the Jews were brought to England in 1066 as money lenders to William the Conqueror, they had lived in Iraq, Rome, North Africa, Turkey and then Spain and Portugal (Sephardic Jews). In London, lending money was their only way of making a living. Though they had the kings’ protection they had NO RIGHTS. In time, they encounted more and more anti-Semitism until in 1290 Edward The First makes the Jews wear identification badges, and finally expels them for good, but they return 400 years later.
We get a stronger sense of what the wall that surrounded “The City” was like in an area behind a hotel where there is a plaque that describes this wall built by the Romans to enclose the square Mile of Londinium. There is evidence here of steps that were built on top of this wall in Medieval times. Originally there were 6 gates, which were locked at 9:00 pm and unlocked in the morning. “City”, once the square mile built by the Romans, is now the financial district. There was no “Greater London” until 1666 when the great fire broke out causing people to move away from the cramped City.
We can see a marker showing “Jewry Street” – one of the 2 streets in which the Jews lived pre-expulsion in very crowded conditions in small wooden houses with thatched roofs open fire in house–a hole through the roof to let out smoke. It was hard to “keep kosher” and the food included a version of “pottage” vegetable stew thickened with barley or other grains. Fish and possibly chicken would be used too. With limited resources and plentiful fish, trying to maintain kosher laws, Portuguese and Spanish housewife’s invented fish and chips!
It was interesting to me to learn that although Jews were ordered to leave London in 1290 some stayed and practiced their faith secretly, nicknamed “Muranos” (Ladino for ham or pork) as they used to hang cuts of pork outside their houses to alleviate suspicion.
In the16th Century, during the reign of Henry the 8th, these Jews are noted in various ways. There is a Tapestry of Esther in Victoria &Albert Museum; Mary Tudors fool (Jane – shown in Holbein’s Whitehall Mural) was a Jewess. Another famous Murano- Dr. Rodrigo Lopez was Queen Elizabeth I’s personal physician who was later accused of high treason by the Earl of Essex and thought to be the character upon whom Shakespeare based Shylock.
As the tour continued there were many markers indicating what had been, included some of the following: site of the magnificent 17thC Ashkenazi Synagogue built by Robert Adam. Bombed in Blitz and never rebuilt, “Shooting Star pub” where the first “Jewish care” purpose built offices were erected, a violin marking the site of the Yiddish Theatre, and one that really caught my attention was Soup Kitchen for poor Jews. This building dates from 1902 and replaced a former building on the site.
Menu was: Soup; sardines; bread and margarine – Monday to Friday. Saturday and Sunday: Challah; soup margarine and pilchards in tomato sauce! Later ice cream factory; now luxury apartments (but the address is still “soup Kitchen for poor Jews…!)
We saw three synagogues. Bevis Marks – first synagogue held in a house on Creechurch Lane. Later it was built in Bevis Marks road. It was Built by Quaker, Joseph Avis and completed 1701. The website (www.bevismarks.org.uk/) lets you feel what it is like to be in this grand synagogue inspired by the great synagogue of Amsterdam.
Sandy’s Row Synagogue is “Bevis Marks” poor relation. Formerly a Huguenot church, it has been completely renovated due to a grant from English Heritage and many donations. The third was no longer functioning but was in a house and there are plans to turn this into a “Tenement Museum”.
In the mid 1800’s Petticoat Lane became an important place for Jewish survival when “Avalanche” of poor Jews arrived in London (thought they had reached America, as all the boats docked in London to refuel… They settled into the “Rag trade” buying and selling second hand clothes and also worked hard in the sweat -shops, a poor and depressing existence. This market has always operated on Sundays so Jewish traders could sell.
On Fournier St. there were beautifully restored houses built by wealthy Huguenot silk weavers who made their fortune during the 18thC when silk became very fashionable and later occupied by Jewish families.
Though we saw much, much more, I will end as our tour did, at the Liverpool St. Station and the Kindertransport Memorial and it's powerful story. In 1938 German and czechoslovakian Jews realized they could not leave their countries. A pact was made with the British Government to allow 10,000 Jewish children into Britain. The Quakers helped with the task of taking children to the station. The children arrived at the port of Harwich and took the train to Liverpool St. Station where their adoptive families met them. Each child had to be accounted for. Some as young as 3, they would never see their parents again. In 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and the Kindertransport project ended. This gripping memorial was created by Frank Meisler who was a kinder transport child himself. He now has a studio in Israel where he lives. The faces of these children are said to portray those of his grandchildren. The statue was a gift from the board of deputies to the British Government for helping these children. The square is named “Hope Square”.
Now, home in Chicago, I was talking with a friend about how impressed I was with this tour. She said she had done a Jewish London tour, too but all she remembered was the statue of the Kindertransport. It was then that I realized that we could have used a guidebook or taken another tour but we would have given up so much. This tour is one that broadened our perspective and impressed us so that we will remember it for a long time.
Read my article on Carfiff Whales here
Photos: Leon and B. Keer