YORK, England — Later this month, the Jewish community of York in northeast England will hold its annual interfaith service. The 40 or so local Jews who regularly attend Shabbat morning prayers will be joined by several dozen non-Jewish guests, including the local member of Parliament, the mayor and the sheriff — a representative of the Crown.
The service will be held in the large, bright, high-ceilinged room the community uses in York’s Friends Meeting House — the local building of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers.
The York Liberal Jewish community’s portable Holy Ark will hold center stage, and the weekly portion will be read from a historic Sefer Torah made available to the community by the Memorial Scrolls Trust, one of over 1,500 Torah scrolls from Czechoslovakia that were saved from the Nazis and subsequently restored.
That a small Jewish community is opening its doors to empathetic locals for a Shabbat morning service may sound unremarkable. Similar events take place routinely around the world.
But remarkable this service, in this community, in this city, most certainly is. For the name York has resonated through the centuries as the site of the most notorious pogrom against Jews in English history. In 1190, the 150 or so Jews of York, having seen several members of their community murdered by local mobs amid a series of anti-Jewish killings that were gradually spreading north from London, sought refuge in the local castle, believing that here they might enjoy royal protection. But King Richard I was on his way to the Crusades, and his sheriff and the Archbishop of York were also away. Far from being safe, the Jews found themselves besieged by a mob baying for their deaths — a crowd that included prominent locals who owed them money.
As recorded some 20 years later by a local clergyman, William of Newbury, citing what he said were eyewitness accounts, most of the trapped Jews, forced to choose between certain death and enforced conversion to Christianity, decided at the instigation of a revered rabbi who was among them to take their own lives. They first set fire to their possessions, and then, as the flames spread through the tower’s timbers, slit each other’s throats. Writes William: “There was [among them] a certain old man, a most famous Doctor of the Law, … honoured by all and obeyed by all as if he had been one of the prophets. When therefore he was asked his advice on that occasion, he replied: ‘… We ought to prefer a most glorious death… If we fall into the hands of the enemy we shall die at their will and amidst their jeers. And so since the life which the Creator gave us, He now demands back from us, let us willingly and devoutly render it up to Him with our own hands.”
A minority of the Jews chose conversion — and survived to plead for mercy the following morning. Enticed out of the tower with promises of mercy, they were promptly slaughtered. “We recognize the Christian truth,” William of Newbury records them saying. “Receive us as brothers instead of enemies, and let us live with you in the faith and peace of Christ.” But the crowd spoke “fair words to them deceitfully… so that they should not fear to come out,” William continues. “As soon as they did so they seized them as enemies, and though they demanded the baptism of Christ, those cruel butchers destroyed them.”
Jews had only arrived in England for the first time in about 1070, with William the Conqueror. And despite the horrors of 1190, Jews did not abandon York altogether in the following 100 years. The best known of their number, Aaron of York, served as the leader of the English Jewish Community from 1236 to 1243.
But in 1290, England’s Jews — estimated at some 5,000; less than 1% of the national population — were expelled by order of King Edward I, with one Sara of York said to have been the last to leave. And for centuries, the bloody fate of the Jews of York was the notorious symbol of that bitter period.
So the fact that York today has any kind of Jewish community is worthy of note. That it will hold its annual interfaith Shabbat morning service on November 16 is anything but routine.
But there’s more. Finally, over 800 years after the terrible events that unfolded here for Jews, York is preparing to more properly recognize and memorialize them.
At the foot of Clifford’s Tower, the 13th century stone successor to the keep of William the Conqueror’s castle where the Jews gathered fatefully in 1190, a plaque marks the event as follows: “On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each other’s hands rather than renounce their faith.”
Set to the side of the stone stairway leading up to the tower, the plaque is easy to miss. The tourism people “show you this nice site,” observes Nigel Grizzard, a heritage tourism guide and member of the nearby Leeds Jewish community, who has taken the train in today to show me around the city. “But there’s this dark side, this English Jewish Masada.”
Soon, though, this “dark side” is to be more fittingly acknowledged. From the top of the tower, the view in one direction is of York Minster, the vast cathedral where the murderous mob headed next after killing the last of the Jews, there to burn the records of the lauded gentry’s debts.
On the other side, the tower overlooks the York Castle Museum, where the curator, local Jewish leaders, representatives of English Heritage — the charity responsible for managing hundreds of England’s most important historic monuments and buildings — and others are discussing the establishment of a permanent exhibition detailing the story of the Jews of York.
Inside the tower, where the bottom of one panel offers a two-sentence summation of the events of 1190, a more detailed, contextualized explanation is to be posted.
And to one side, presently a parking lot, a park is being planned, and the idea is that it feature some kind of “peace garden” dedicated to tolerance, with a memorial to the Jews of 1190, in the literal shadow of the bloodshed.
English Heritage has also been consulting with Jewish leaders about how to honor the dark history of the site, alongside its medieval tourism value. It could be that there are still bodies buried here, posits Shannon Kirshner, the chair of the community, who is accompanying Nigel and me as we walk. “It should be respected. Ideally, we wouldn’t want parties or dancing here.”
The authorities have taken to planting daffodils on the mound around the tower, which bloom in early spring. “I believe they were chosen because their six petals echo the Star of David,” says Kirshner.
York’s new readiness to acknowledge its dark past is at least partly a function of the fact that there are now Jews again living in the city as an organized community.
Until as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there was a veritable herem (boycott) on York, Grizzard recalls, as he leads us on a stroll in bracing late autumn weather atop the city’s walls. “You were told you didn’t go to York.” That started to change in 1978, when the UK chief rabbi of the day, Immanuel Jakobovits, raised the issue in discussions with Christian leaders, the plaque was emplaced and, says Grizzard, “the healing process began.”
York had not been entirely without Jews throughout the intervening centuries. After Oliver Cromwell sanctioned the readmission of Jews to England in the 1650s, a handful of Jews came to the north, and more arrived in the late 1800s, setting up a synagogue above a carpentry shop that Grizzard takes us to. Numbers swelled a little, too, with a World War II influx of kindertransport refugees. But by 1970, the community had declined to the point where a minyan could no longer be mustered, and the building Grizzard shows us that held the Aldwark Synagogue has long been boarded up.
Today, though, the unspoken herem has evidently lapsed. There are an estimated 200 Jews living in the city, dozens of whom are affiliated with the community, which was founded six years ago. And the community in turn, says Kirshner, is now trying to raise the funds to hire, albeit half-time, its own rabbi — York’s first in eight centuries.
“Jews coming back to York today?” muses Grizzard at one point in our walk. “It’s like Jews going back to Germany.”
In a riverfront restaurant just around the corner from the site of York’s earliest known synagogue on Coney Street — today a branch of the Next clothing store — Sarah Rees Jones, a professor of medieval history at York University, adds color, context and a little confusion to the historical record of the Jews of York.
She explains that the York massacre had its origins in Richard I’s coronation ceremonies in London six months earlier, where Jews were barred from the church and the palace, waited outside anyway, and were set upon by mobs.
Among them were two leading members of the York community, Josce and Benedict. The former escaped unharmed. The latter was badly hurt and later died of his injuries. Benedict’s widow and children were among those murdered by the mobs in York in the spree that prompted the Jews to flee to the castle.
King Richard opposed attacks on the Jews, whom he regarded as a sort of Crown property, says Rees Jones. But in a climate where the monarchy was not yet in full control, where the king was off on the Crusades, and where some were preaching that the Jews were Christ killers, the London bloodshed was followed by a series of attacks moving northward along the eastern side of England — including Bury St Edmonds, where 34 Jews were murdered, and Lincoln.
While William of Newbury’s account of the events of March 1190 is the most detailed and accepted, Rees Jones notes, he plainly “modeled his narrative on Josephus’s account of Masada.” He also wrote it about 20 years after the events. “He seeks to be relatively credible,” she says carefully, “but he does the literary thing.”
The veracity of the events he describes is not doubted. It is detailed in other accounts, too, including that of Roger of Hovedon, and various Hebrew snippets. But unsurprisingly, there is no archaeological evidence. The mound beneath Clifford’s Tower has never been seriously excavated. And the terminology used by William allows for the possibility that the terrible events took place at the long gone Royal Palace, constructed on a different hill. At the same time, evidence of burning timbers has been found at the site of Clifford’s Tower.
As we walk the walls, Grizzard stops to point out a little blue Star of David, with the word “Jewbury,” set into the stone walkway.
It points toward the parking area of a supermarket just below us.
When we walk down to the parking lot, we see a street sign marked “Jewbury” and a plaque that records that this was “the location of the ancient Jewish cemetery of York,” which was used from 1177 until 1290.
In 1984, when the supermarket was being built, and the cemetery paved over, some of the remains were dug up and transported for burial in Manchester, to the south.
“That same night,” Grizzard says, “York Minster was hit by lightning.”
As part of York’s process of coming to terms with its dark Jewish history, the city’s Theatre Royal is planning to perform a new play about the events at Clifford’s Tower next fall.
This coming spring, as the daffodils bloom again, the city is set to invite proposals for its tolerance memorial area in the new park beneath the tower.
Kirshner anticipates that it will be a place where people can sit in quiet contemplation.
“We’ll have the annual commemoration there,” she foretells. “We hold it every March 16. We say Kaddish.”
The mayor of York comes to that service, too.