Princes Road Synagogue


In 1656, Oliver Cromwell agreed to overturn centuries of precedent and formally invite the Jews to return to England after their expulsion from the country in 1290. The immediate practical effect of Cromwell’s decision was limited: the few Jews living in seventeenth-century England, mostly Sephardic merchants from Amsterdam, were granted the right to remain in England on legal terms. And though it would be another two centuries before Jews enjoyed British citizenship, Jewish immigrants nevertheless began arriving in England in small numbers in the late eighteenth century and in increasing numbers during the nineteenth century.

By the closing decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth, Jewish writers had already begun to write in English, commanding audiences both in matters of Jewish religion and philosophy but also in matters of interest to the general reading public such as literature, history, politics, etc. For the most part, Jews wrote in the same forms cherished by their British neighbors–essays, political treatises, collections of anecdotes, poetry, and letters were popular genres among Jews as well as Christians.

This period was also an inaugural one for institutions of British Jewry. The office of Chief Rabbi was first held by Aaron Hart in 1704. The Great Synagogue, first built in London in 1690, was reconstructed in 1722 into a larger building and was rebuilt for the final time between 1788 and 1790. In 1701, the large Sephardic synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Shaar Asamaim, or Bevis Marks, was built and served for centuries as the hub of Sephardi Jewry.

Jewish writers were also busy establishing themselves and Judaism in Britain and in English. David Levi wrote tirelessy, challenging anti-Jewish prejudices among Enlightenment thinkers and writing about the rituals and practices of Judaism. He also translated the first Jewish Bible into English as well as the first siddur or prayer-book. Isaac D’israeli wrote about Jewish philosophy as well as English literature and British history. And Hyman Hurwitz, Britain’s first Jewish professor of Hebrew, wrote Hebrew language grammars, religious texts, and even a dirge on the death of King George III.

In all, this period shows Jews and Jewish writers attempting to gain a foothold in British national life, showing themselves to be uncompromisingly Jewish, taking part in British civic society, and defining themselves and their religion in the English language for the first time.