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Synagogue stories of Jewish Hull
Denis Price
By Denis Price
Local writer and historian

An invitation from the Hull Hebrew Congregation to join them in a talk by Max Gold on The myth of the Wandering Jew and the beginnings of Hull Jewry.

Tucked away in a tranquil corner of a west Hull village sits an unobtrusive ivy clad building which is the place of worship for many of Hull's Jewish community.

On a bright Sunday afternoon I joined a small group from the East Yorkshire Local History Society taking advantage of Rabbi Osodba's kind invitation to join members of his congregation in learning more of Jewish history in both worldwide and local contexts.

Also present to provide a polished introduction was Dr Nick Evans of Hull University History Department with speakers Max Gold, a prominent Hull solicitor, and Dr David Lewis, historian and archivist for the Hull Jewish community.

synagogue exterior
The synagogue replaced two other buildings in 1995

Max began by elaborating on recorded Jewish presence and influence in the Roman Empire where approximately 10% of the population was Jewish and how Jewish traders from the period were believed to have been regular visitors to Cornwall some 2000 years ago.

A further example of Jewish influence in the British Isles was the observation that many of the teachings of Celtic Christianity had their roots in Judaism.

We heard also of the large Jewish presence in mediaeval Spain and how it was believed that Columbus himself may have been a 'marano', a Spanish term for a Jew forcibly converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion or worse. Which may account for an estimated 20% of Spain's current population being of Jewish origin.

Moving closer to home we were told that following their expulsion from England in 1290, Jews were invited to return by Cromwell in 1655 and allowed to build their first synagogue in the following year with Cromwell tempering his apparent generosity by commenting: "The Jews can stay as long as they behave themselves."

Synagogue interior
Hull was a major migration route for European Jews

We learned from Max that the Hull community is one of the three oldest in England. Helped because coastal areas and ports made travel easier for traders and pedlars allowing their businesses to flourish and encouraging them to put down roots.

Hull's first recorded Jewish inhabitant in 1766 being Michael Levy, a watchmaker. In 1788 a local jeweller, Aaron Jacobs, created an 'elegant crown' to adorn the brow of King William the Third's (King Billy) equestrian statue on the centenary celebration of his victory over King James the Second.

It seemed a pity that such valuable historical item of significance to the community and city should disappear into the mists of time, a fact which excited much comment among the audience. My neighbour suggested that we all pay more attention to the Antiques Roadshow: "just in case".

Much of the community's contribution to the political and economic life of the city is well known although many of us were surprised to learn from Max that the family responsible for the Max Factor cosmetics giant sprang from humble beginnings in Hull's Osborne Street before emigrating to the USA.

Judah Rose answers questions about the congregation

Handing over to archivist Dr. David Lewis, Max paid particular tribute to Bethel Jacobs (1812-1869), a pillar of the community and a gifted man renowned for his artistic and philanthropic contributions to his community and the city.

Dr Lewis spoke of his role in creating from books and registers a directory of the local community's origins and its people. This record also covers the years of transmigration in which Hull played an important role as a stopping off point for the many thousands moving on to Liverpool and a new life in North America.

The directory, which is now at first draft stage, when finally complete will be passed to Hull's new History Centre where it will be made available on-line for use by historians and descendants of early transmigrants exploring their family origins.

Following welcome refreshments provided by the ladies of the congregation, Mr. Judah Rose the senior member of the congregation and a man with a twinkle in his eye became our guide to the adjacent synagogue.

One visitor commented on how surprised he was that the design and symbolism was not unlike that in a Christian church, with the exception of the fence down the middle dividing the congregation. Mr Rose's prompt explanation was that: "It was to keep the women from the men." raised a laugh.

With the visit drawing to a close and resisting offers of even more honey cake, we thanked our hosts for their hospitality and the opportunity to visit their place of worship. The speakers had broadened our understanding of the origins of their community and highlighted its contribution to our city's cultural, educational and economic life.

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