Magazine article History Today

Bristol's Judaica Project

Magazine article History Today

Bristol's Judaica Project

Article excerpt

Earlier this year Bristol's new Architecture Centre on Narrow Quay played host to a fascinating exhibition of photographs of Historic Synagogues of the World. It came from New York, and this was one of only two British showings. So why Bristol? An explanatory leaflet told visitors that sponsors included both the city's Orthodox and Progressive communities and marked the start of a National Lottery application to create a South West Centre for Jewish Arts and Heritage: the Judaica Project.

All this reflects a notable reawakening to the long history of the Jews in Bristol. One reason is the discovery of a ritual bath or mikvah which archaeologists have recently dated at around 1170, making it the oldest surviving mikvah in Europe. The evidence of this was hidden behind the masonry of a named head at the significantly named Jacob's Well Road which runs from Clifton down to the quays of the city's quaintly named Floating Harbour. On the hillside just opposite is the site of an ancient Jewish cemetery.

Jews first arrived in England after the Norman Conquest. brought in by William the Conqueror to provide financial services from which a Dan on usury barred Christians. They seem to have arrived in Bristol during the following reign when William Rufus continued a policy of encouragement. They serried as was common wen medieval Jewish communities) outside the city walls, but along side the River Frame: the present Nelson and Quay Streets were once called Jewry Lane.

Though banking skills may have brought the Bristol Jews prosperity, their lot was often unenviable. R.R. Emanuel and M.W. Ponsford, writing in the transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, explain mat Jews were regarded as the King's chattels. taxable at will under the Bristol Tallage of 1213 the crown confiscated one-third of all Jewish property. Three ,ears earlier the merchant Abraham refused to contribute to a royal levy introduced by King John to finance his Irish wars. Abraham was Imprisoned in Bristol Castle and his teeth pulled out, one each day, until -- down to the last of his eight teeth -- he paid up the princely sum of 10,000 marks.

In some respects, however, Bristol S Jews may have received more tolerant treatment than in many other places Their first synagogue seems to have been in vaults directly under the church of St Giles; this, like the still surviving St John's, was built into the city wall with a defensive gateway under its tower. …

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