If one were to gaze across the London skyline from any point in the bustling metropolis, one would almost definitely pause for a moment, as a cluster of slightly unwieldy and visually arresting skyscrapers roll into view. The Cheese-Grater, Walkie-Talkie, and Gherkin provoke strong reactions from both the “what stunning modern architecture!” and “London has never been so severely violated!” camps. One thing is for sure though: this bustling financial district in The City of London is a symbol of progress and innovation, a farewell wave to London of yesteryear.
This too was my perception of the glass and steel playground on the bank of the Thames until fairly recently. For nestled at the foot of the most iconic of the gargantuan buildings (do pickled cucumbers have feet?) lies a time capsule to the past, a vital piece of Jewish cultural heritage, and, most surprisingly, a vibrant and alive Jewish community.
Bevis Marks Synagogue is the UK’s oldest Jewish place of worship, and also claims to be the oldest continually running synagogue anywhere in Europe. It was founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants, who arrived in London’s East End shortly after Jews were allowed back into Britain; the date of foundation inscribed over the grand Hogwarts-esque double doors at the front of the synagogue reads 1701. Remarkably, the beautiful yet understated interior of the synagogue has remained unchanged (except for the electric lighting and floorboards) for more than 300 years.
This may not surprise a huge number of people. After all, the synagogue is open as a museum during the week, and there used to be a kosher restaurant on site. What may come as news is what happens after the museum closes on Fridays and the sun begins to set over the river, casting a shimmering orange sheen over the hazy London skyline.
One of the challenges of being a Jewish university student in London is the dreaded “winter Friday afternoon.” Shabbat looms ever closer as you try to figure out which lectures you can squeeze in before dashing home. Sometimes, the sprint back to NW London just isn’t feasible. When I realized one week that a particularly nastily scheduled assessment would leave me stranded in town for Shabbat, I searched for options. Bevis Marks fit the bill. I contacted the rabbi, a young and dynamic Ph.D. student fresh off the boat from New York. He offered me a place to stay and Shabbat meals, with the warmth and hospitality that I would soon learn is the hallmark of the whole community. I gladly accepted the offer and arrived, not quite sure what to expect.
What I discovered over those 25 hours was truly astonishing. From out of the nooks and crannies of densely populated Aldgate and Tower Hamlets emerged a few dozen Jews who gather together in the synagogue to keep the flame of the UK’s oldest Jewish community burning. The hodgepodge congregation is made up of a diverse and eclectic range of people. There are city workers brushing shoulders with university students. Old time Spanish and Portuguese Jews wearing traditional top hats and sitting in their ancestral seats share benches with first-time-to-London tourists. There are Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Men and women. Young and old. One thing unites everyone. A respect and love for the ancient traditions being practiced, and an insatiable desire to preserve them.
The original brass candlesticks flanking the ark are lit, bathing the dark oak furniture in a warm orange glow. The sound of authentic and unadulterated Western Sephardic liturgical melodies bounces around the cavernous room, strains of harmony floating towards the vaulted ceiling. A little choir is formed from whoever happens to be in the congregation that week to accompany the chazan in the service. The choreography of the removal and return of the Torah scroll from the ark is undertaken with military precision, including all the intricate little customs peculiar to the Spanish and Portuguese community. The rabbi, an orator par excellence, gives over a timely and engaging sermon. A kiddush after both Friday night and Shabbat morning services takes place surrounded by priceless heirlooms and archival pieces in the basement of the synagogue. People chat and relax; everyone is made to feel welcome.
Everything I have described may seem perfectly standard for a successful Jewish community. And yet there is something special about Bevis Marks. I’m not sure if it’s the history seeping from the prayer soaked walls, the spirits of thousands of previous worshipers joining you for tefillot. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the current day members who are so proud to share their treasure with anyone who walks through the doors. Or maybe it’s the fact that in an era when pop-up and break-away synagogues are all the rage, this community plods forwards with an uncompromising dedication to the authenticity of their tradition. All I know is that there is something unique about Shabbat at Bevis.
I have returned twice more to Bevis Marks since my first experience there. The second time I took a friend along with me, the third, twenty teenagers from NW London. Everyone expresses the same reflections after their stay, “I can’t believe I didn’t know this community existed” followed by, “I need to come back here.”
When I look across the London skyline now, my gaze still rests on the collection of odd-looking skyscrapers on the horizon. They still remind me of innovation and progress, but now I also think of something else. I remember that in the shadow of these monuments to modernity lies a place of history, tradition and connection. A dynamic, vibrant and warm community. A place where I will always feel welcome. I urge you to experience it for yourself.