Newton’s Temple

A brilliant scientist as well as a prophet of doom counting down to the End of Days. A gifted physicist and a messianic mystic. Isaac Newton was a man of many contradictions.

Physicist Isaac Newton did not pull any punches when it came to his criticism of the church, which was perhaps not surprising considering he was one of the most famous scientists to have walked the earth. What many are unaware of, is that Newton devoted much of his time to the study of ancient history, alchemy and biblical interpretation. He wrote essays on the structure of the Jewish Temple and the Tabernacle, and even attempted to calculate when the End of Days would occur. As part of these pursuits, Newton studied the Hebrew language and applied it in his theological writings.

When Newton’s estate was donated to the University of Cambridge, university representatives were not interested in his theological writings and refused to accept them. These papers remained with his beneficiaries and, in 1936, they decided to put them up for auction. Abraham Shalom Yahuda, a biblical scholar who was born in Jerusalem, managed to purchase a majority of the manuscripts. Following his death, Yahuda’s archives, including the Newton manuscripts, were donated to the National Library of Israel in accordance with his wishes. They finally arrived in 1967 (you can access them here).

So how are Isaac Newton’s theological writings resolved in light of his monumental scientific contributions? Albert Einstein, who understood the significance of these manuscripts, sent a letter to Avraham Shalom Yahuda which answers this very question:

“My Dear Yahuda,

Newton’s writings on biblical subjects seem to me especially interesting because they provide deep insight into the characteristic intellectual features and working methods of this important man. The divine origin of the Bible is for Newton absolutely certain, a conviction that stands in curious contrast to the critical skepticism that characterizes his attitude toward the churches. From this confidence stems the firm conviction that the seemingly obscure parts of the Bible must contain important revelations, to illuminate which one need only decipher its symbolic language. Newton seeks this decipherment, or interpretation, by means of his sharp systematic thinking grounded on the careful use of all the sources at his disposal.

While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.

Einstein. September 1940, Saranac Lake

P.S. I think that it is wonderful that the writings will all be kept together and made available for research.”

And so, without any further delay, let’s examine some of these documents…

The text below dates back to 1710 and, like other writings from this collection, contains content from two seemingly unrelated fields. At the top of the page are calculations for Queen Anne’s currency tax. Newton was appointed Master of the Royal Mint in 1700, a post he held until his death in 1727. The lower part of the page contains commentary on the concept of the Trinity. Newton first discusses Sabellianism – a doctrine that argues that divinity is embodied in one entity, alternating between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Newton believed that the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament present God as one entity (the Father). He was of the opinion that men and women do not possess souls and that eternal life could only be achieved with the resurrection of the dead. Newton believed that Jesus was the son of God in the literal sense, not an embodiment of God himself. In his eyes, Jesus was not mortal, as he was not born to a human father. The denial of the Holy Trinity and the existence of the eternal soul were considered heresy by the Catholic Church and the Church of England, under whose auspices Newton lived and worked. Therefore, he was forced to keep his views secret, managing to evade the watchful eye of the Church.

Formula for calculating currency tax alongside notes on the Trinity, 1710, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
Formula for calculating currency tax alongside notes on the Trinity, 1710, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

This is a page from an essay of Newton’s, which contains rules for interpreting the language and words of the Bible:

 

Rules for interpreting words & language in Scripture, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
Rules for interpreting words & language in Scripture, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel

The document, part of the collection at the National Library, dates to the period of 1670 to 1680. On this page, Newton presents a systematic approach for interpreting symbols appearing in biblical prophecy. Having identified the significance of the symbol by comparing various scriptures, its significance could, theoretically, be applied to the entire Bible.

The first rule, for example, deals with the symbol of “The Beast” which, according to 17th-century commentators, relates to political entities:

To observe diligently the consent of Scriptures & analogy of the prophetic style, and to reject those interpretations where this is not duly observed. Thus if any man interpret a Beast to signify some great vice, this is to be rejected as his private imagination because according to the style and tenor of the Apocalypse & of all other Prophetic scriptures a Beast signifies a body politic & sometimes a single person which heads that body, & there is no ground in scripture for any other interpretation.

This is a manuscript written by Newton titled “Notes on the Temple,” which contains observations on what he believed to be the sacred architecture and geometry incorporated in the structure of the Temple of Solomon, as well as customs that were practiced during religious rituals.

Notes on the Temple, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
Notes on the Temple, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel

The manuscript was written between 1675 and 1685, and includes text in Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Throughout the manuscript we can clearly see several instances in which Newton uses Hebrew script. For example, he analyzes the use of the Hebrew root רצף (rezef) and its modifications רצפה and רצפת (rizpah, rizpat), which can mean “sequence”, “floor” or “flooring”. The Aramaic words תא חזי (ta hezi) and תא שמע (ta shema) also appear in Hebrew script. These Talmudic phrases mean “come and see” and “come and hear”, respectively. All of the Hebrew script appears alongside Latin translations and explanations.

In the left column, near the top of the page, we can see a Hebrew biblical verse, complete with vowel notations: Baruch shem kvod malchuto l’olam va’ed (“Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever”). According to Midrash, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he heard the angels speak this verse to God.

Also in the left column of the page, we see commentaries from a Spanish Jesuit on the descriptions of the Temple that appear in the Book of Ezekiel.

To Newton, The Temple held significance for three main reasons. First, Newton saw the Jewish Temple as a model of the universe. He believed that the Temple in Jerusalem, and the courtyard surrounding it, was a model of the heliocentric solar system, with the raised altar (located in the center) representing the sun. Second, Newton’s interest in the architecture of the temple was fueled by his belief that the Temple would serve as the “site of revelation” for the apocalypse. In addition, he believed that the Temple would be rebuilt in Jerusalem (with even greater magnificence than the original) at the onset of the Millennial Kingdom – that is, Christ’s reign on earth.

הכרונולוגיה המתוקנת של ממלכות עתיקות - מקדש שלמה
The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended – The Temple of Solomon, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Like many European scholars of the Renaissance and early modern periods, Newton invested enormous effort in deciphering writings which, in his opinion, contained the secrets of the universe. He believed these secrets were encoded in the sacred texts of ancient civilizations. Guided by this belief, he came to be interested in Jewish thought. He even possessed a Latin translation copy of Sefer Avodah, (also known as the Book of Temple Service) part of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) - Mishneh Torah, Sefer Avodah, 1678, the National Library of Israel collections
Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) – Mishneh Torah, Sefer Avodah, 1678, the National Library of Israel collections

In his essay from the late 1680s, The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, Newton discusses the belief systems of ancient peoples which, he postulates, gradually degenerated into idolatry. He was convinced that early theology included philosophical research in astronomy and physics, with no separation between religion and science. It was this very marriage between the scientific and the theological that he aspired to reconstruct in his own writings.

In the opening section of the essay, he wrote:

“That the theology of the Gentiles was philosophical and pertains to the knowledge of astronomy and the physics of the world system; how the twelve major gentile gods are the seven planets, the four elements and the earthly quintessence.”

 

The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, the A.S. Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel

Newton’s attempts to derive information from the biblical and Talmudic descriptions of the Mishkan and the Mikdash are rare examples of historical, philosophical documents that attempt to balance religion and science. This unusual combination is reflected in the writings of one of the greatest and most influential scientists of all time.

 

See more of Isaac Newton’s writings preserved at the National Library of Israel, here.

 

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The Archivists and the Forgotten Boxes: Rediscovering the Victims of the Sajmište Concentration Camp

The discovery of boxes of forgotten materials in the Historical Archives of Belgrade sparked the creation of a touching series of historical graphic novels on the Holocaust

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Illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

A few years ago, the archivists at the Historical Archives of Belgrade discovered 6 boxes among old unsorted piles hidden behind the shelves in a far dusty corner of the depot. When they removed the lock from the first box, they were suprised to find a 14-year old girl with big eyes staring back at them with a smile from a pile of old papers: “Hello, my name is Ester, and I’ve waited patiently for 70 years to tell you that once I used to be alive!”

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Illustration from the educational graphic novel “The Archivists And The Forgotten Boxes” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Gabriel Kousbroek

When the archivists dug deeper in the box, they discovered that Ester had been a student at the First Belgrade Gymnasium. She had been popular, with many friends and a loving family. “We lived in the Dorćol neighborhood in Belgrade, and I used to dream about becoming an actress,” Ester told them.

All of a sudden, more voices began to emerge from the box, and then other boxes on the surrounding shelves began to chime in. Soon enough, the entire archive depot was filled with thousands of voices echoing throughout the storage chamber.

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Illustration from the educational graphic novel “The Archivists And The Forgotten Boxes” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Gabriel Kousbroek

The boxes found in the Historical Archives of Belgrade revealed forgotten, unprocessed and unlisted documentation regarding the lives of several thousand Belgrade Jews from who were killed at the Old Fairground (Sajmište) concentration camp.

During WWII, in autumn and winter of 1941, the Old Fairground was where the Nazis and their allies brought Jews from all over occupied Serbia to be killed using an infamous gas-van known as  the “dušegupka.”

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“The gas van known as ‘dušegupka,’” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

On May 29, 1942, Franz Rademacher, Chief of the Jewish Department in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, stated that the “Jewish question in Serbia has been solved.”

What he meant was that almost all of the Jews in Serbia had been killed. From that day on, the Old Fairground remained a symbol of total destruction for the Jews of Serbia.

Inspired by the discovery of the boxes filled with forgotten documents, the archivists of the Historical Archives of Belgrade began a complex and long-term project – Much like detectives, the archivists worked to combine the newly discovered materials with other pre-war archives including school registers, membership lists of sport-club associations, employees lists, property registers, old photographs, letters and newspaper clippings…

Day after day, piece-by-piece, the archivists worked to put together their huge puzzle. Together with their colleagues and historians, they were determined to once again reveal a vision of pre-war Belgrade that could be shared with their Jewish neighbors, friends, and schoolmates. It was like traveleling back in time, a vivid and colorful picture was appearing in front of their eyes – and with that, Ester was reborn.

The “Ester” graphic novels respresent an extremely significant educational resource. They consist of a series of dramatized stories about the Jewish victims killed in the camp at Sajmište in Belgrade (Judenlager Semlin) at the beginning of 1942. The stories focus on young victims and their families, their pre-war life, the situation under the German occupation and during the Holocaust. They are based on true historical events and characters.

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“Departure to the Sajmiste concentration camp” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

“Ester” was produced by an international team consisting of historians, teachers, experts on Jewish culture and tradition and Holocaust survivors, as well as a group of illustrators from Serbia and the Netherlands who worked together on bringing the vision to life.

The Ester graphic novels were created as a reconstruction and dramatization of history, based on available fragments of personal stories. While keeping historical events and facts central to the stories, we put the main focus on the human aspects, feelings, and thoughts of the main characters, with the aim of engaging students on a different level, thus creating a creative and engaging tool for learning about the Holocaust.

A Story about the Red Race Car

The first story shared in this project is a dramatization of the Frelih family’s history in pre-war Belgrade, based on true events, real people, historical documentation and testimonies.

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“The Synagogue during the occupation”  illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

Aleksandar Frelih is an eleven-year-old Jewish boy from Belgrade. As we follow Aleksandar and his family through twelve illustrated scenes, we learn more about their life, the local Jewish culture and traditions, and about pre-war Belgrade and Serbia in general. When the war brought anti-Jewish measures, repression, and death, the Frelih family shared the same destiny as thousands of other Belgrade Jews. Above all else, “Story about the Red Race Car” is a human story about friendship in times of suffering, told from the perspective of a young Jewish boy.

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“The bombing of Belgrade,” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

The Frelih family is registered in the Sajmiste database. Since there were no photos available that could help to visualize the story to the students, illustrations based on actual historical documentation were created instead.  The illustrations that accompany the story speak for themselves, telling the tale of a proud and rich Jewish culture in Belgrade, a happy young boy living his day to day life, and the untimely end that his family faced like so many others.

Besides this story, the educational material consists of two other stories, about the Demajo and Fisher families, both of which were destroyed in the Sajmiste concentration camp.

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“Parting with father” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

Project Background

The international project titled Escalating into Holocaust was organized by the Historical Archives of Belgrade, Terraforming – a non-governmental organization  from Sweden, the Center for Holocaust Research and Education based in Belgrade, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies based in the Netherlands and the University of Rijeka of Croatia. The project was implemented in 2016 and 2017 in Serbia, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The project was funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), as part of its Europe for Citizens, European Remembrance program.

The Historical Archives of Belgrade, as the leader of the project, created a database of victims killed in the Sajmiste camp and, for the first time, the names of victims of this camp were gathered in one place.

As part of the same project, the Terraforming organization developed teaching materials based on the stories of the victims killed in 1941 and 1942 in Sajmiste. While working on this material, “Ester” was born.

The development of Ester began in the framework of the “Escalating into Holocaust” project, with the support of the ODIHR project ”Words into Action to Combat Antisemitism.”

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

 

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Meet the Jewish Circus Performer Who Could Bend Iron with His Bare Hands

Zishe Breitbart was known as the "Modern Day Samson" and performed all over the world until his untimely death.

breitbart

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia

Jewish culture has always preferred brains to brawn, placing more of an emphasis on scholarship than the gymnasium. Jews shine in many fields, but you usually won’t see too many of them in your typical sports highlight reel – and yet, despite the odds, there have been some exceptional Jewish sports stars, such as boxer Daniel Mendoza (champion of England in 1792–5) and baseball’s Sandy Koufax. U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Russian gymnast Yelena Shushunova  also won plenty of Olympic medals.

And then there was Siegmund Zishe Breitbart.

breitbart
Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

The Modern Day Samson

Zishe Breitbart was born circa 1883 to a poor family in Stryków, Poland. His father was a blacksmith and Zishe followed in his footsteps but with one twist: much to their customers’ amazement, Zishe could successfully bend metal with his bare hands.

breitbart
Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, the blacksmith. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Stryków was under czarist rule when World War I broke out and Breitbart enlisted in the Russian army, only to be captured by the Germans. Lucky enough to survive and be freed, he joined Busch, a German roving circus. Renamed “Siegmund,” he appeared and performed all over Germany as well other European countries, then toured America. He straightened horseshoes and bent iron bars with his bare hands, broke chains with his teeth, and lifted strange and various weights including wagons loaded with passengers – and even the occasional elephant.

Settling in Germany, Breitbart married a rabbi’s daughter and fathered a son. Performing his one man show, he solidified his reputation among Eastern European Jewry as the Iron Man, the World’s Strongest Man, and of course, the Modern Day Samson.

breitbart
Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Posters advertising his performances in Poland promoted a new Jewish national image. Between the two world wars, as Jews integrated more than ever into modern economies, these ads broadcast Jewish strength, raising Jews’ spirits – and non-Jews’ expectations.

Of the four posters preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, a couple are particularly large. One, printed in Cologne, shows the champ chomping on chains. The date and time of the act were left blank, to be filled in later. The other three were printed in Stanisławow – now Ivano-Frankivsk, part of Ukraine – in Polish as well as Yiddish, indicating that Breitbart’s fans weren’t all Jews.

breitbart
One of four posters from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People advertising a Zishe Breitbart performance.

Beloved by Millions

As president of the Maccabi Berlin sports federation, Breitbart symbolized a Jewish renaissance. He never hid his Jewish identity or his Zionism. Some claim he visited Palestine, but there are no records of such a trip. The rumors probably testify more to the breadth of his popularity, extending even as far as the Middle East.

Breitbart’s career was cut short after just six years by a tragic work accident. While driving a spike through a thick pile of tin sheets – using his hand as a hammer of course – he was stabbed in the knee by a rusty nail, resulting in blood poisoning. Antibiotics had yet to be invented, so he struggled against the infection for eight weeks, submitting to ten operations, including the amputation of both legs. He died on September 29, 1925, the 24th of Tishrei,and was buried in the Adass Yisroel cemetery in Berlin.

breitbart
The Sentinal,  Friday, October 20, 1925. From the National Library of Israel Historical Jewish Press collection. Click image to enlarge.

The funeral of this Jewish celebrity was covered by Doar Hayom (The Daily Post), published in Mandatory Palestine by Itamar Ben Avi (son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew). The article was entitled “On the Death of a Second Samson:”

The massive funeral was attended by thousands of Jews and Christians. A good few kilometers around the graveyard were jammed with hundreds of cars filled with people coming to the funeral. There were so many people that the elderly cemetery officials declared they couldn’t remember ever seeing such an enormous Jewish funeral in Berlin. The police had to send numerous constables out to maintain order and supervise the procession.

Cameras and filming equipment were set up on the surrounding roofs and photographed various scenes throughout the funeral….

Breitbart
Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Chief Rabbi Dr. [Esra] Munk delivered the eulogy, emphasizing that the deceased had won the hearts of millions…. [Munk] particularly praised the deceased for disregarding all the glory and honor accorded him by the world at large, for Breitbart never forgot he was a Jew. He always came back to be with his fellow Jews, wherever they might be, telling them how happy he was that today Jews could claim the strongest man in the world as one of their own….     A black flag belonging to the Berlin Maccabi sports federation, of which Zishe Breitbart was honorary president, fluttered throughout the funeral. Telegrams of condolence arrived, and wreaths were laid on the grave by sports associations from Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, and Warsaw.
(Doar Ha-yom, 7 Marheshvan 5686, October 25, 1925)

 

A version of this article first appeared in Segula Magazine, October 2016, Issue 34.

 

The Oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in London

The Sandys Row Synagogue has kept its doors open through two World Wars and remained active from its original consecration in 1870 until today.

sandys row

Sandy's Row, corner of Frying Pan Alley. Photo copyright of The Bishopsgate Institute Archives London

Today it is almost impossible to get any sense of a Jewish presence in the neighborhood of East London, but there were once nearly one hundred and fifty synagogues operating in the area. Now Sandys Row is the last functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in Spitalfields, an area of East London at the heart of the former Jewish East End. Dutch Jewish migrants, who began arriving in London from Amsterdam in the 1840s, established the synagogue in 1854. They were economic migrants seeking a better life, rather than refugees fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlement.

This small, distinctive, tight-knit Dutch Jewish community of a few hundred people settled in the streets of Spitalfields. They had their own traditions and customs which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups and continued to practice the trades they had brought with them from Holland. These trades were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established and businesses were passed down through generations.

“The Chuts,” as they were known locally, refused to join any of the larger existing synagogues. They wanted their own establishment and formed a “Chevra”; the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth, which originally functioned as a burial and mutual aid society and later became a way of raising funds to purchase their own building. By 1867 the Society had amassed enough money to acquire the lease on a former Huguenot Chapel in Sandys Row, a small side street in Spitalfields near Liverpool Street Station and the City of London.

sandys row
Copyright of The Bishopsgate Institute Archives London

The community employed Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous synagogue architects of the time, to remodel the chapel. He kept many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony and added a new three-story extension onto the building, creating a vestry and accommodation for a rabbi and caretaker. He also designed a beautiful mahogany ark which can still be seen recessed into the eastern wall of the building framed by neo-classical columns. Since it was consecrated in 1870, with ‘an immense throng of Jewish working men assembled – with devotion, enthusiasm, and solemn demeanor – to join in dedicating the humble structure to the worship of God,’ Sandys Row Synagogue has never closed its doors, operating through both World Wars and into the twenty-first century.

Sandys row
Sandys Row Synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper

Apart from some pine wood paneling which was added in the fifties along with some pine pews, the synagogue today looks much the same as it did when it opened in the nineteenth century. It was described in the Jewish press in 1870 as ‘a sacred place…simple, yet charming,’ a building that ‘invites the worshipper to religious meditation.’ The same holds true for the interior of Sandys Row today; it is an oasis of calm from the bustle of the city outside. The building still evokes the sense of awe and quiet meditation described by the journalist who witnessed the consecration ceremony nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Until recently, little has been known outside the congregation about this wonderful building and the Dutch Jewish community who established the synagogue. But during the past few years, I have been working with the synagogue as a historian and archivist to uncover more about the history and heritage of the building thanks to a grant from an anonymous benefactor.

Sandys row
The entrance to Sandys Row Synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper

The project began by collecting oral histories of past and present members of Sandys Row. We have recorded interviews with members in their homes across London, as well as locally with the few elderly Jewish people who remain in the area. They spoke of a neighborhood once bursting with life, filled with kosher butchers, bewigged women, friendly societies and Yiddish speaking traders. They told of a time when there was a synagogue or house of prayer on nearly every street in the area and the vicinity of Sandys Row was filled with Jewish shops, workshops and thousands of stalls from Petticoat Lane.

sandys row
The basement of Sandys Row Synagogue, photo by Morley Von Sternberg.

All of our interviewees had fond memories of Sandys Row Synagogue. Some, like Pamela Freedman and board member Rose Edmands, are directly related to the Dutch founding members.

‘It was a family shul, they used to call it the Dutch shul. All my late husband’s family were members. He was the president, his uncle was the president, I think the grandfather was president,’ said Pamela.

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Rose, whose original Dutch surname was Engelsman, said her entire family were members.

My great aunts used to sit in the front row and my mother’s generation sat in the row behind, and we kids sat in the back. And, now I sit in the front row – there’s nobody. So the reminder of time passing is very poignant there.’

The current president of Sandys Row, Harvey Rifkind, told me ‘during the fifties and sixties, the synagogue flourished. On Shabbat, there were one hundred to two hundred people there and on the high holy days, you could not get a seat. People literally sat on the floor in the aisles.’

Sandys Row
The Torah ark at the front of the synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper.

Today the synagogue is still functioning with afternoon services every weekday and weddings taking place regularly as a younger Jewish community has started to move back into the heavily regenerated tourist area of East London.

Alongside gathering the oral history recordings of people’s memories of the synagogue my role at Sandys Row has also involved depositing a great deal of handwritten records and other artifacts from the synagogue at the Bishopsgate Institute Archives in London.

sandys row
Sample of the materials preserved from Sandys Row Synagogue, 1919.

Over time, most of the synagogue’s records had been scattered around the building. Some were found in the safe in the vestry, but the majority were retrieved from the eighteenth-century basement which is practically unchanged from when the building was erected in 1766 as a Huguenot Chapel. The documents we found include nineteenth-century marriage certificates and an almost complete collection of handwritten minute books from the time the synagogue opened until the mid-twentieth century. This original material has now been safely deposited at the institute. Furthermore, we have spent many years digitizing the entire collection, which is available to view both online at www.ourhiddenhistories.com and has also been deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) at the National Library of Israel. Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, the director of the archives had this to say:

sandys row
This is the earliest minute book for Sandys Row Synagogue. The first minutes of a meeting to be written in English are dated Saturday 6th September 1873. The rest of the minute book is written in Dutch and appears to cover general synagogue business. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the rest of the book here.

The CAHJP holds thousands of archives of Jewish communities, institutions, international organizations and prominent individuals from all over the globe. Despite the extensive coverage of communal collections, the CAHJP holdings do not include any full-scale archives of Ashkenazic congregations from London. Hence, the rich archive of the Sandys Row Synagogue, going back to the mid-19th Century, deposited at the CAHJP as a digital copy, is an important contribution, adding missing stones to the mosaic of Jewish history.

sandys row
This book holds a registry of 99 marriages containing biographical information regarding the bride and groom and the date of their marriage. This marriage register covers the period leading up to WWI. View the complete book here.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

 

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