20 July 2013
A curious question leads to the
story of the Jews of Cambridge
During these warm summer evenings, some of us have walked from Sidney Sussex College up Sidney Street and Bridge Street in Cambridge to the Mitre to enjoy each other’s companies and to discuss and debate the day’s proceedings at the summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.
The Mitre is an anomalous name for a pub in Cambridge. After all, there is no Bishop of Cambridge, and the university and the city lie within the Diocese of Ely.
Some evenings, I have wondered whether Portugal Place and Portugal Street, which are beside the Mitre, were so named because Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula found a welcome in Cromwell’s England. This conundrum had added interest for us this week, given that Oliver Cromwell was an alumnus of Sidney Sussex College.
Indeed, in my rambles this week, I soon found out that the Cambridge Synagogue is in Thompson’s Lane, close to the Mitre and to Portugal Place and Portugal Street.
The first Jews arrived in England in the wake of the Battle of Hastings and William I’s conquest of England. The majority of these Jews initially settled in London, but Cambridge may have soon become the centre of one of the earliest provincial Jewish communities. Fuller, in his History of Cambridge puts the date of the first Jewish settlement at 1073.
There is a tradition that the Round Church on Bridge Street, opposite Saint John’s College, was a synagogue, and the parishes of All Saints’ and Saint Sepulchre were once known as “in the Jewry.”
Although 13th century Cambridge Jewry is better documented, it appears Jews were more active in 12th century Cambridge, and the first recorded medieval Cambridge Jew. Theobold of Cambridge (Theoboldus Kantebrugie). He is mentioned in 1144 as an alleged convert to Christianity and a monk. He played a crucial role in establishing the case for Saint William’s martyrdom at the hands of the Jews of Norwich, and so he became a key figure in disseminating the first-known propaganda alleging ritual murder.
Another early episode mentioned in the life of the Cambridge Jewry is of a fine inflicted upon Comitissa, a Jewish woman in Cambridge, for allowing her son to marry a Jewish woman from Lincoln without the king’s permission. It is probable that this Comitissa was the mother of Moses ben Isaac Hanassiah, the author of the Sefer ha-Shoham.
The Jews of Cambridge do not seem to have suffered much during the riots of 1189-1190.
A grammarian known as Benjamin of Canterbury may have been from Cambridge, since the Latin records make mention of a Magister Binjamin in Cambridge. In 1224, King Henry III granted the house of Benjamin the Jew to the town as a jail. This was on the site of the present Guildhall.
The Jews of Cambridge were victims during the revolt of the barons in 1266, and the official records of Jewish life in Cambridge were removed that year to Ely. Within a decade the Jews were banished from Cambridge in 1275.
King Edward I issued an edict in 1290, expelling all 5,000 Jews from England and confiscating their property, and the Jews who were expelled crossed to France and Flanders.
The old synagogue was near the prison – later the site of the Guildhall on Market Hill. It was given to the Franciscans, who had their main house in Cambridge on the site of Sidney Sussex College.
However, Jews started returning to England in the 1650s under Oliver Cromwell, an alumnus of Sidney College. Jewish scholars began visiting Cambridge to teach Hebrew as part of the Cambridge BA, and by the early 1700s stable Jewish communities were emerging in Cambridge.
Well-known Jewish teachers at the university include Israel Lyons (1739-1775), Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinnessy, and Solomon Schechter. By 1847, a tiny resident congregation was worshipping in the Union Society’s premises in 1847.
Although Professor JJ Sylvester took high honours in mathematics in 1839, he was debarred from taking his degree by the university statutes. Arthur Cohen entered Magdalene College in 1849. An Act of Parliament in 1856 opened up Cambridge BA degrees to Jews, Muslims, and others, “without violence to the conscience,” and in 1858 Arthur Cohen became the first Jew to take his BA at Cambridge.
In 1869, Numa Hartog gained the position of senior wrangler, the highest mathematical triumph a Cambridge student can obtain, and so he helped to secure the passage of the University Tests Act allowing Jews to take their degrees.
By 1873, the Jewish congregation in Cambridge was meeting in Regent Street. There was a brief move in 1888 to Petty Cury, a narrow street that links Sidney Street and Saint Andrew’s Street to the east, Market Hill and Guildhall Street to the west, and Hobson Street on the corner of Christ’s College.
After the death of Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinessy, the Romanian rabbi Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) was appointed to the faculty at Cambridge University in 1890, serving as a lecturer in Talmudics and reader in Rabbinics.
His greatest academic fame came from his excavation in 1896 of the papers of the Cairo Geniza, a collection of over 100,000 pages of rare Hebrew religious manuscripts and mediaeval Jewish texts that were preserved in an Egyptian synagogue. The find revolutionised our understandings of Mediaeval Judaism. The story is told in Janet Soskice’s book Sisters of Sinai (London: Vintage, 2010).
Professor Alfred Philipp Bender (1863-1937), who was born in Dublin and educated at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was instrumental in founding the Cambridge Hebrew Congregation and conducted its services for many years. His father, the Revd Philipp Bender, was the minister of Mary’s Abbey Synagogue, Dublin.
In 1899, the university students took over from the residents of Cambridge in running the synagogue. A year later (1900), residents and students were managing a minyan in a room over Barrett’s china shop in Saint Mary’s Passage, on the corner of Market Place. They then moved to a studio in a garden in Camden Terrace (Park Terrace).
By late 1912, the Jewish community on Cambridge had moved into premises behind a bicycle shop opposite the entrance to Sidney Sussex College, possibly in premises on the site that is now part of Sainsbury’s.
A purpose-built synagogue in Ellis Court (as it was called then) in Thomson’s Lane, off Bridge Street was consecrated on 21 October 1937 by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Joseph Herman Hertz. There were some 50 active Jewish students at the time.
Today, the resident Jewish population of Cambridge has a high percentage of members from the university, ensuring there is a good intellectual and social atmosphere in the shul.
During university term, the services are run by the students, with a touch more boisterousness than out of term. Outside university term, the shul reverts to the residents, who also run the High Holy Day services.
The Jewish community in Cambridge says it is unique, and it provides its own self-description by saying: “It is serious without being pompous, friendly without being happy-clappy, open without losing sense of the necessary boundaries – and, above all, a true community, where people look out for each other, and enjoy each other’s company.”
Revised 1 October 2019