By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Here's another detailed travel story (in Jewish Week) about London's former Jewish quarter, the East End. The author, Stephen Burstin, conducts Jewish themed tours. For more information, click HERE
The oldest surviving synagogue in England, Bevis Marks, today straddles the border between the East End and the city’s financial district. Founded in 1701 primarily by Dutch Jews whose descendants had fled the Spanish Inquisition, it is Sephardic. Its original interior is perfectly intact, including the beautiful Renaissance-style ark.
Bevis Marks boasts several famous sons, most notably the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose father turned his back on Judaism and converted the family to Christianity when Benjamin was 12. This did not stop an Irish member of Parliament from later insulting the young politician’s Jewish roots. But Disraeli famously retorted: “Yes, I am a Jew. But while the right honourable gentleman’s ancestors were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
Many sites in the East End continue to provide reminders of the neighborhood’s rich Jewish heritage; at one time Jews made up 95 percent of the population. There’s the soup kitchen that served 5,000 meals a day during the Depression years; now, paradoxically, its retained ornate facade provides a frontage to luxury apartments. Across Commercial Street in revitalized Spitalfields, $1.5 million homes vie with each other to maintain the best-kept Jewish secrets from unknowing passers-by.