York’s Jewish History
On Sunday, 26th August, 2 car loads of Darlington members headed for York (28% of our membership!). Amazingly for this summer it was a sunny day and we were able to fortify ourselves with sandwiches in the Park and Ride car park before catching the bus into York. The tour was lead by Professor Helen Weinstein and we assembled on the steps at the Yorkshire Museum. This was where we encountered not only another DHC member who had made the journey by train but also Jewish people from 3 different states of the US, from Harrogate, from other UK cities and from York itself. Soon we were all busy chatting and making new friends. The Harrogate and York contingents were amazed to discover that there is a Darlington community and synagogue. We soon put them straight and invited then to visit.
The tour itself was fascinating and covered more than a thousand years of York Jewish history. Buildings that we would have passed without a second glance were rapidly brought to life as Prof Weinstein recounted their links to our past and present. many of us, myself included, were astonished to discover that the well- known (the Prof was even warned of it by her New York granny!) religious ban on Jewish settlement in York following the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in the 12th century, has no historical foundation and is just a widespread myth amongst Jewish people. Similarly debunked was the idea that Jewish population died out completely afterwards as there is written evidence of the purchase of an extension to the Jewish cemetery some decades after the massacre.
I think all the people on the tour were disturbed torealise that under a weed -ridden patch of land adjoining a multi- storey car par, at Jewbury, are buried 500 Jews from the middle ages with another 1000 more under the car park itself. It was explained that no blame attached itself to Sainsbury’s for this situation, but rather inexpert opinion that originally doubted the Jewish nature of the site and communal apathy from the 1980s when the car park was built. The professor was optimistic however that if and when the site is re-developed a more appropriate treatment would be agreed.
We learned that another ‘fact’ without historical evidence is also attached to the massacre of 1190 and is sadly even perpetuated on sign boards inside the tower and a plaque at the foot of the mound. This says that the Jewish population committed suicide rather than renounce their faith when attacked by a mob led by the local indebted gentry as they sheltered in the tower. (They also burnt the debt records held in the Minster). The source for this belief is a much later non-Jewish account which craftily shifts the blame for the actual deaths to the Jews themselves rather than their attackers.
Given that York was packed with tourists, shoppers and race goers, it was a miracle that we managed to tour the streets without losing anyone from our party; (well, just the one and only temporarily whilst she performed the great mitzvah of caring for a shivering homeless man). We did however get wet as a monsoon struck as we waited for the bus to the car park.We can all thoroughly recommend this tour and there are more details including an on-line version at www.historyworks.tv