Jason and Shannon have been invited by a friend to visit the Portuguese Synagogue in Bevis Marks, in the city of London. It’s a nice evening, so they decide to walk there, as it is not far from where they live. They have seen the building from the outside, as they often pass by, but this is their first time inside.
Jason is a bit glum; cultural visits are not really his thing, but Shannon insists. ‘You can’t go to the pub or watch telly every night, can you?’ She asks. Jason answers, ‘Well, actually I could!’ but ducks quickly before Shannon can cuff him.
Jason has to wear a kippa (skull cap) on his head, which sits strangely on top of his spiky hair. They hear a very informative talk about the history of the Synagogue, and learn that it is the oldest purpose built one in England. There are much older buildings in other towns, like the Jew’s Court in Lincoln, dating from Norman times, but it has not been continually in use since then, due to the expulsion of the Jews from England in the 13th Century. A number of synagogues that predate the expulsion of the Jews from England have been discovered by archaeologists or historians in buildings that have been in use for other purposes for many centuries. A second set of synagogues post-dates the legal return of Jews to England in the seventeenth century. Some synagogues have been destroyed or demolished and rebuilt on the same site, so that, while the site or congregation may be very old, the building may be modern. Still other old synagogue buildings exist, but were sold by the congregation and are now used for other purposes, some as churches or mosques, others for everything from residences to school recital halls. And some very old synagogues have been in continuous use as synagogues for many centuries.
Bevis Marks Synagogue, called the ‘Sha’ar HaShamayim’ (Gate of Heaven) community was built to house the congregation of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, and has been known since then as the Portuguese Community.
In 1698 Rabbi David Nieto took charge of the congregation who met in a small synagogue in Creechurch Lane, in the city. A considerable influx of newcomers made it necessary to obtain more spacious quarters. Accordingly a committee was appointed which investigated matters for nearly a year, and on February 12, 1699, signed a contract with Joseph Avis, a Quaker, for the construction of a building to cost £2,750. Avis later declined to collect his fee, on the ground that it was wrong to profit from building a house of God. On 24 June of the same year, the committee leased a tract of land at Plough Yard, in Bevis Marks, for 61 years, with the option of renewal for a further 38 years, at £120 a year. Avis began building at once, reportedly incorporating in the roof a beam from a royal ship presented to the community by Queen Anne. The structure was completed and dedicated in 1701. With the exception of the roof (which was destroyed by fire in 1738 and repaired in 1749), it is today as it was over 300 years ago. The interior decor and furnishing and layout of the synagogue reflect the influence of the great Amsterdam Synagogue of 1677.
In 1747 Benjamin Mendes da Costa bought the lease of the ground on which the building stood, and presented it to the congregation, vesting the deeds in the names of a committee consisting of Gabriel Lopez de Britto, David Aboab Ozorio, Moses Gomes Serra, David Franco, Joseph Jessurun Rodriguez, and Moses Mendes da Costa.
The Bevis Marks Synagogue was the religious center of the Anglo-Jewish world for more than a century. As the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community grew and moved out of the City and East End of London to the West End and the suburbs, other synagogies were built. Attendance at Bevis Marks declined so much that in 1886 a move to sell the site was contemplated; a "Bevis Marks Anti-Demolition League" was founded, under the auspices of H. Guedalla and A. H. Newman, and the proposed move was abandoned.
Thus Bevis Marks exists today, and still looks exactly as in former days. The synagogue's most prominent feature is undoubtedly the beautiful Renaissance-style ark (containing the Torah scrolls) located at the centre of the Eastern wall of the building. Both in its location and in its design, it is like the reredos of the churches of the same period. Painted to look as though it is made of coloured Italian marble, it is in fact made entirely of oak.
An old print of the interior
The Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept)
(Pictures 1 and 3 courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
The synagogue contains benches running parallel to the side walls and facing inward, leaving two aisles for the procession with the Torah scrolls. In addition, backless benches at the rear of the synagogue, taken from the original synagogue at Creechurch Lane, date from 1657 and are still regularly used.
A number of seats in the synagogue are roped off as they belong or have belonged to notable people within the community. Two seats are reserved for the most senior officials of the congregation's publishing arm, Heshaim. Those that hold the positions are welcome to sit in them when visiting the synagogue, but they are otherwise kept vacant. A third seat, fitted with a footstool, has been withheld as it belonged to Sir Moses Montefiore, a very notable Jewish philanthropist. It is the seat nearest the Ark on the central row of the left half of the benches. It is only ever occupied by very senior dignitaries and it is considered a high honour to be allowed to sit in the seat. In 2001 Prince Charles sat in the seat during the tercentenary service, and Prime Minister Tony Blair for the service celebrating the 350th anniversary of the re-settlement of the Jews in Great Britain.
The synagogue is the only one in Europe which has had continuous services for over 300 years.
Jason and Shannon find their visit very interesting, and even Jason is really impressed. This is one of the postcards they take home to show Cissie and Thelma:
Cissie and Thelma were rather astonished when they heard how the kids had spent their evening.
'I think Jason is growing up;' sighs Cissie. 'Marriage seems to be making a man out of him. About time, too!'
'Yes, well, he's married to my daughter!' answers Thelma.
For Paint Party Friday I have another WIP. There wasn't much painting time this week, as I have been helping my neighbour a lot. I have worked here with tissue paper, mod podge and gesso, and then different paint sprays and Inka gold. I think I will add some more layers to it, and then use it to make another journal cover.
I think that was more than enough for one day, congratulations if you have managed to stay with me to the end! Have a great day, take care, and thanks for visiting!