Posts Tagged ‘City of London’

London — By Andrea Kirkby on January 17, 2010 at 8:27 am
Filed under: City of London, jewish london, london synagogues

London’s hidden synagogue

The synagogues of the Venice ghetto are well known tourist destinations. But not a lot of people know about one of London’s best kept secrets, the superb Bevis Marks Synagogue, hidden in a little alley not far from Liverpool Street Station.

I’m a great lover of the City churches by Sir Christopher Wren, and this synagogue feels very familiar, with its huge windows, solemn white light, and fine gilded woodwork.Even the outside, with white painted woodwork against dark brown brick, seems redolent of Wren’s style, while the beautiful classical style Ark carved out of oak looks  similar to a Grinling Gibbons reredos.

Look more closely, though,and you see this is clearly not a church. The lettering on the Ark is, of course, all in Hebrew, and the benches run the ‘wrong’ way.

Why the very Christian style? Well, for a start, the Jews of the day were very much part of the City community. Look at the pictures of rabbis from those days and you can see them looking every bit like satisfied Georgian gentlemen – except for their little beards. But also, they weren’t quite accepted; so although they were allowed to build their own place of worship, the synagogue had to be built on a side street, and perhaps they chose its very familiar style deliverately to make it look familiar and unthreatening.

Inside, though the style is very classical, the synagogue copies much of its form from the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam – its mother congregation. What you see today would be instantly recognisable to a worshipper from the 1700s, even down to the candle lighting. (Electric lighting has been added at the sides of the synagogue, but the great candelabras still use real candles to light the building on Holy Days.)

The synagogue site was bought in 1699, and the building works were carried out by a Quaker, Joseph Avis – perhaps the first great benefactor of the congregation, since he refused to make a profit on building a house of God. The great central chandelier was given by the Amsterdam Great Synagogue, and by 1701 the building was open. (That’s about twenty years after most of Wren’s London churches, but clearly the style was still current; St Paul’s Cathedral was not completed till 1711, and Wren had been working at Hampton Court Palace till at least 1694.)

It’s a marvellous place, full of light and glory. The noise of the City seems to disappear, and you might almost have stepped back three centuries as you open the door and slip into the building. It’s one of those places you feel yourself almost not wanting to breathe in case it breaks the stillness.

By the way, the synagogue’s fine website is as much worth a visit as the synagogue itself. There’s a fascinating list of famous members of the congregation, including Prime Minister Disraeli’s father – who left the congregation after a quarrel – and famous boxer Daniel Mendoza. The synagogue is still in use today – it’s the oldest synagogue in Europe with an uninterrupted tradition of Jewish worship.

Where: Heneage Lane, off Bevis Marks [map]

When: 1030-2 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 1030-1 on Tuesday and Friday; 1030-1230 on Sunday. (Services are noted on the web site.)

Photo by King David on flickr

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