I do not think that many Jews have ever heard the name of England’s most famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, born in London in 1633 and died there in 1703.
He was a Member of the British Parliament and Administrator of the British Royal Navy and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under the reign of King Charles II and King James II.
He is famous in British history for the diaries which he kept, an important source for the English Restoration period. It contains his eye-witness accounts of the London Great Plague, the second Dutch war, the Great Fire of London, and his personal account of attending the execution of King Charles I in 1649.
Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. In 1656, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel in Portugal petitioned the British Parliament to permit the re-admission of the Jews to allow for the re-establishment of a Jewish community in England.
His petition was granted in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth. The first Jew to enter England was a Sephardic merchant from Portugal, Antonio Fernandedz Carvajal.
Now enters the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.
On Wednesday, 14 October 1663 he wrote a lengthy account of the visit he and his wife Elizabeth, whom he married when she was fourteen years old, to the Bevis Marks synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashamayim. It was the evening of Simchat Torah.
This is what he wrote in his diary:
“My wife and I were conducted to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles (prayer-shawls), and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press (holy Ark) containing the Pentateuch (Greek for the first five books of the Torah) to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall. (Portugese), but the prayer like the rest, in Hebrew. But Lord ! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion and noise in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.
Well, Mr. Pepys. You should visit an orthodox synagogue in the 21st century. Nothing much has changed since you visited in the 17th century !
(copy of Pepys remarks can be found in Wikipedia)