Rachel Kolsky is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on this drizzle-damp morning. She carries an über-loved fabric flower like a wand, and darts around our group at twice the speed that I can presently think. Her ears prick up when I say the words ‘fairy cake‘, but I confess that I have none with me; I was merely relating a boring cupcake anecdote to my friend. “Never mind“, she replies, “I simply adore cake!” and off she scurries to greet a newcomer.
Rachel tells us all that she is given to fast walking, and can’t adjust her speed, but we mustn’t worry, because she will always wait.
I’m encouraged: a walking tour needs a character to guide it.
About ten of us are collected by Tower Hill Tube station, ready to learn about the Old Jewish Quarter of London. Rachel warms us up by asking us to look back at the Tower of London, about which she gives a potted history. She declares that we are here at the very best time of year. Why? Because in the winter, there are no leaves on trees, allowing unobstructed views of majestic landmarks like this one.
And here begins the story, because it was William the Conqueror (whose central White Tower still stands) who first invited Jews from Northern France to settle in his new kingdom. He liked the idea of their good commercial skills and capital bringing prosperity to the land. The Jewish population flourished (mostly based in London), lending names as well as money, but life became increasingly difficult during the 12th and 13th centuries.
We walk on. Briskly. And continue to do so for the next couple of hours, with regular stops at pertinent sites where Rachel brings British Jewish history to life through a stream of stories – political, personal, tragic, and intriguing – including the expulsion of Jews (in 1290) and subsequent influxes (from 1656 onwards – after Oliver Cromwell took power).
We discover key individuals like philanthropist Frederic David Mocatta, and we laugh at Samuel Pepys’ agitated response to visiting the Creechurch Lane synagogue in 1663. Some of the settlers became super wealthy, others remained poverty-stricken. Hence the establishment in 1854 of this handsome soup kitchen (since 1902 sited on Brune Street and now turned into offices and flats).*
Behind an unassuming frontage in a quiet courtyard, we are lucky enough to take a pew (can I call it that?) in the Bevis Marks synagogue. Entrance to the UK’s oldest working synagogue (built in 1701) is a rare treat. It’s beautiful and light, with a graceful simplicity designed by Joseph Avis (there are echoes of Wren, but also a clear nod to the Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue whence the new Sephardi community came – their remaining Dutch friends gifted the greatest of the seven chandeliers).
Maurice Bitton (he’s in charge) is happy to share everything he knows. Including where important guests like Prince Charles get to sit on special occasions, and why Benjamin Disraeli’s family converted to Christianity (until 1858 he wouldn’t even have been able to enter Parliament as a Jew, let alone become Prime Minister, but that’s not the whole tale).
Maurice speaks with humour and warmth, especially when focusing on the inspirational Sir Moses Montefiore. Notable is how there has been a recent revival in the number of congregants. City workers and dwellers come here to worship, some perhaps seeking respite after a tough day in a fast-paced office.
As we walk on, Rachel regales us with small snippets of her own personal history – her stylish Petticoat Market shoes and fondness for the stallholders’ patter, her former life in the City (as a librarian), and how easy it is to feed her passion for Jewish history by finding clues everywhere she goes. She’s quirky and funny – with great timing, and loves Ottolenghi. Actually, she’s like me. She prefers eating his food to cooking it (long lists of ingredients can dissuade the regular cook).
I’m a little befuddled by Rachel’s synopsis of the different denominations of Judaism (it’s complicated), but to be fair to her, she is compelled to respond to a big question posed by one of the group in a tiny scrap of time.
And of course two and a bit hours proves to be a bit of a scamper through the centuries, but Rachel’s walk uncovers endless fascinating gems, and reveals how extensive and layered British Jewish history is. It’s a tantalising taster.
Final stop is Fournier Street in Spitalfields – home to successive waves of immigrants: French Huguenots and Irish weavers, and then Jews who toiled in the textiles trade. When the Jewish community moved on (to London’s leafy suburbs), the spacious and light-filled attics that had once housed silk looms were colonised by penniless artists. Today this is a gentrified and sought-after London postcode.
At the far end, where Fournier Street meets Brick Lane, Rachel points out a minaret and explains that the Brick Lane mosque was originally built as a Huguenot church and later became a synagogue (with moments as a Wesleyan and then Methodist chapel too).
And here is where we part. Rachel suggests that those not heading back for a lovely Ottolenghi lunch might want to continue on to Brick Lane where plentiful bagels can be found. My friend and I opt for the latter.
As we round the corner we find the mosque emptying out after Friday prayers. Men are slipping on their shoes and going their various ways. People in flux. The Latin words Umbra Sumus (‘we are but a shadow’) engraved at the top of the building make as much sense now as they did when Horace wrote them over 2000 years ago.**
He also wrote carpe diem. So off we walk up the eclectic Brick Lane past curry houses galore in search of the famous Beigel Bake, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The queue is long but quick-moving – the service is unsmilingly efficient.
The Jewish community has largely disappeared from this area, but it seems that it has left more than a shadow à Horace. I’ve never seen so many bagels.
I thank my marvellous friend, Miriam, who treats me to a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel (and whose idea this wonderful day was).
If you are interested in taking a reasonably fast walk with Rachel Kolsky, click here for details. For a more in-depth guide, Rachel has co-written this excellent book.
* Charitable Jewish institutions came into being due to the fact that impoverished Jewish people were unable to take advantage of the same aid as non-Jews. The Jewish Board of Guardians (est. 1859) was the best known such institution. It amalgamated with other charities in the 1990s to become Jewish Care. It is striking that it was only during the course of the 19th century that Jewish people finally enjoyed the same social and political rights as their fellow Brits.
** The full quotation from Horace is “pulvis et umbra sumus” meaning: “we are dust and shadow.” From Odes 4.6.16.