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At Bevis Marks Synagogue

June 15, 2016
by the gentle author

Built in 1701, Bevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in this country and it has been continuously in use for over three hundred years, making it – according to Rabbi Shalom Morris – the oldest working synagogue in the world.

Its origin lies with Spanish and Portuguese Jews who came to London in the seventeenth century, escaping persecution of the Catholic Church and taking advantage of a greater religious tolerance in this country under Oliver Cromwell’s rule. When war broke out between England and Spain in 1654, Antonio Robles, a wealthy merchant, went to court to prove that he was Jewish rather than Spanish – establishing a legal precedent which permitted Jewish people to live freely in this country for the first time since their expulsion by Edward I in 1290.

By 1657, a house in Creechurch Lane in the City of London had been converted into a synagogue and the site of Bevis Marks was acquired in 1699. Constructed by Joseph Avis, a Quaker builder who is said to have refused any profit from the work, and with an oak beam presented by Queen Anne, the synagogue was completed in 1701.

Remarkably, the synagogue has seen almost no significant alteration in the last three centuries and there are members of the current congregation who can trace their ancestors back to those who worshipped here when it first opened – even to the degree of knowing where their forebears sat.

On the sunlit morning I visited, my prevailing impression was of the dramatic contrast between the darkness of the ancient oak panelling and the pale white-washed walls illuminated by the tall clear-glass windows, framing a space hung with enormous brass chandeliers comprising a gleaming forest of baubles suspended low over the congregation. You sense that you follow in the footsteps of innumerable Londoners who came there before you and it makes your heart leap.

The lowest bench for the smallest children at the end of the orphans’ pew

Rabbi Shalom Morris turns the huge key in the original lock at Bevis Marks

Bevis Marks Synagogue has open days as part of the Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival on Sunday 19th June 10:30am – 12:30pm, Monday 20th June 10:30am – 2:00pm & Tuesday 21st June 10:30am- 1:00pm

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. John Montague permalink
    June 15, 2016

    Stunningly beautiful.
    What an amazing survival.
    Thanks for opening so much of London to the world.
    John

  2. Yvonne Eade Kolessides permalink
    June 15, 2016

    As always, thank you for making my mornings special..
    I miss London so much but your wonderful photography is something to look forward to each day..

  3. June 15, 2016

    Bevis Marks is a very beautiful place which I often visited when I still lived in London. Thanks for sharing the photos. Valerie

  4. June 15, 2016

    A lovely set of pics and commentary by GA. This has to be one of the most peaceful synagogue’s for prayer and worship in London. Many of the original features are still here, when the congregation are in situ and all the chandelier’s are lit, they must appear as heavenly light from above that’s nice. Bevis Marks is the oldest one and is similar to the oldest one in New York. Here it is smaller and darker on my visit it was more of a heritage synagogue retaining the original austere features. John

  5. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    June 15, 2016

    What a delightful post, gentle author……..wonderful story and brilliant photos. What a city is London!

  6. Robert permalink
    June 15, 2016

    Beautiful photos and commentary.

  7. Sonia Murray permalink
    June 15, 2016

    What a truly beautiful synagogue! Thank you for sharing its history and the pictures – I look forward to your articles every morning. This one was a particular delight!

  8. Peter Holford permalink
    June 15, 2016

    I have visited a few synagogues recently in various cities, mainly because the opportunity to see them presented itself rather than any urge to seek them out. What has struck me is how their layout has so much in common with some of the Christian dissenter chapels. The layout is inclusive, making everybody as close to the focus of the service as possible rather than at the other end of a church away from the chancel.

    Like others replying to this blog I have never heard of this synagogue. Definitely one to seek out.

  9. Antony Macer permalink
    June 15, 2016

    I send the webpage to my local history society, suggesting they forwarded it to an enquirer who wanted to know more about the employment of Jewish tailors in my west of England town, thinking that The Gentle Author’s photographs, if nothing else, would be of interest to him. here is his reply (name withheld – but just ask, if required):

    Thank you so much for sending the piece on Bevis Marks.

    My parents together with most of our family before them were married at Bevis Marks – Marilyn, my wife, and I were married at the sister synagogue, Lauderdale Road in Maida Vale London.

    We lived much of our married life whilst we lived in England in Russel Square and would attend Bevis Marks for Sabbath and holiday services. The most holy of days in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur that starts in the evening with a service called Kol Nidre where, even today, the sanctuary is light by candle light from those magnificent candelabras shown in the photographs. The seniors of the synagogue still wear top hats and I recall one member attending services in his finery wearing tails, top hat and spats. The service is incredibly moving where Jews ask to be released from all their vows (Kol Nidre meaning all vows). Thought you might like to hear what the opening service sounds like – although this clip is from The Jazz Singer – 1927 with Al Jolson, the tune and words are the same that are sung by the cantor every Kol Nidre service http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=kol+nidre+youtube&&view=detail&mid=3D9CFA9CD004C0113B7E3D9CFA9CD004C0113B7E&rvsmid=3D9CFA9CD004C0113B7E3D9CFA9CD004C0113B7E&fsscr=0&FORM=VDMCNL – Bruch also composed a stunningly beautiful cello piece called Kol Nidre with the tune running through it as a reoccurring theme.

    Bevis Marks is a magnificent building with a great history, even as to who built it and had such renowned members as Disraeli (until he converted to become Prime Minister) and one, Daniel Mendoza the pugilist and a distant relation. If you are in that part of the world the building is worth a visit and I do believe has guided tours.

    Thanks again for passing this information on to me.

  10. David Brede permalink
    June 16, 2016

    Thanks.

    A really lovely building.

  11. Karen Rennie permalink
    June 16, 2016

    hello, my family recently had a ‘big Jewish wedding’ at the wonderful Bevis Marks – if you would like a couple of photos, which show the men on one side and the chuppah, just let me know.

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