On Wednesday evening, October 14, 1663, for reasons that he did not record, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, along with his wife and a companion, decided to pay a visit to a London synagogue. What he observed there was bizarre and, in some respects, abhorrent to him.
Though he did not always understand the objects and activities that he was describing, those of us with greater familiarity with Jewish practice can easily decipher his cryptic narrative.
Thus, when he writes of the men and boys in their vayles, it is obvious that the reference is to the prayer shawls worn by male worshippers. The reference to the women behind a lattice out of sight was also a common feature of traditional synagogues. When Pepys writes some things stand up...in a press to which all coming in do bow, he is correct in surmising that those standing things were scrolls of the Law, the Torah, to which the congregation bowed in reverence. They were housed in the typical Sepharadic casing that allowed them to be placed upright on the reading table. In a similar manner, he accurately describes the words, incomprehensible to him, that the men recited when they donned their vayles--referring to the Hebrew blessings, of course--and the responses of amen and of kissing the fabric of the shawls.
Noting that their service was all in a singing way, and in Hebrew, Pepys related that the worshippers removed the Torah scrolls from their cases, and several men carried them around the room a number of times to the accompaniment of congregational singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. That is to say, though the Hebrew blessing was for the welfare of the reigning British monarch, Charles II, the worshippers' pronunciation of His Majesty's name revealed their Spanish or Portuguese origins.
Up to this point, Pepys sounds bemused, perhaps even impressed, at stumbling upon an enclave of quaint oriental ritual in the heart of conventional London. Henceforth, however, his sympathies undergo a decided deterioration: But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. In a state of intense mental agitation, he elected to leave the building.
It is possible that the staid Pepys would have been shocked by any religious service that was foreign to his familiar Anglican sensibilities. However, the shock level was compounded here by the fact that he chose to schedule his synagogue visit not to coincide with a normal weekday service, nor even with the solemn Sabbath prayers--but on the festival of Simhat Torah. Even if we were not otherwise aware that the Julian date October 14 1663 coincided with the Hebrew date 23 Tishri 5424, we would have been able to figure it out from the fact that the Torah scrolls were being taken out at night and carried in joyous processions around the sanctuary. I rather doubt that those Sephardic congregants would have been really raucous by our standards, but the English High Church liturgy prided itself in a decorous respectability that did not look kindly on any expressions of physical activity or spontaneous song in a house of worship.
Indeed, a century or two later, when Jews on the continent were offered entry into European society, one of the first priorities they set for themselves was to impose decorum on the synagogue services, lest their uncouth behaviour embarrass them in the eyes of dignified visitors from the churches down the street.
The Simhat Torah service attended by Samuel Pepys was, indeed, a remarkable historical milestone.
Jews had been forbidden to reside in England since the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. A tiny community of Sephardic merchants had only recently allowed itself to recommence its communal life in London, following Oliver Cromwell's loosening of the restrictions. Though it is common to speak of a formal edict in 1656 readmitting the Jews to England, historians have been unable to locate that edict. It is true that Cromwell was eager to attract Sephardic Jewish merchants from Amsterdam, who held prominent positions in the world of international commerce; and it is equally true that the renowned Jewish visionary Menasseh ben Israel had been allowed to set foot on British soil to lobby for the readmission. Menasseh's conference with Cromwell even gave rise to a conference in Whitehall where the matter was discussed. In the end, however, no formal legislation is known to have resulted from this flurry of activity and good intentions.
The synagogue that Pepys visited was established quietly during this same time period. By the end of 1656, there were enough Jews dwelling in London to require a permanent place to worship, and that could be pursued openly only now, though not necessarily legally. The community's representatives acquired one storey of a building in Creechurch Lane to serve as England's first functioning synagogue in almost four centuries.
The actual founder of the Creechurch Land synagogue was Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, a successful Jewish merchant of Portuguese birth whose business dealings led him to settle in London, where he held lucrative contracts for procuring various commodities for the English government. During the early years of his residence in England, he continued to masquerade as a Catholic. In 1645, the laxity of his observance led to an accusation of illicit religious activity, but he was sufficiently well connected to have the charges dismissed by the House of Lords. His contribution to the war effort against Spain brought him a legal permit of residency in England, and Cromwell himself arranged to have his property transported from the Canary Islands.
As the first Jew to be admitted to England since the expulsion, Carvajal supported Menasseh ben Israel's petition to Parliament to readmit the Jews, and he was instrumental in obtaining Cromwell's good will on that matter. Nevertheless, Carvajal and his comrades refused to appoint Menasseh as their community's rabbi, choosing instead a relative from Hamburg, Rabbi Moses Athias. Rabbi Athias may well have been presiding over that Simhat Torah service during Pepys' visit.
During the years leading up to Pepys' visit, the fate of London's nascent Jewish community was not clear. In spite of the encouragement of Cromwell and other high-placed figures, there was no shortage of antisemites who were urging the enforcement of the expulsion edict. One of the most vocal of these was the alderman Thomas Violet, who in 1659 campaigned to have Cromwell's edict declared illegal. Impatient with the judge's procrastination, he devised a sting operation in which one of his agents would plant a packet of counterfeit coins on Rabbi Athias. When the agent confessed to the conspiracy, Violet proceeded in 1660 to petition the Privy Council that all Jewish property be impounded and the Jews imprisoned, to be ransomed by their brethren in Europe. Other agitators, including the authorities of the City of London (some things, apparently, never change), went as high as Parliament itself to initiate a debate on the banishment of the Jews. However, a royal message was presented before the House requesting, instead, that they consider the question of granting protection to the Jews of the realm.
From this point onwards, notwithstanding some minor obstacles, the rights of England's Jews remained relatively secure.
That sense of relief might well have contributed to the boisterous elation that offended Samuel Pepys during his Simhat Torah visit to the Creechurch Lane synagogue.
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