When I was in London, I came across a lot of amusing or interesting placenames. Thinking it funny that this says “Old Jewry,” and very clearly not “Old Jewelery” (or “jewelry”), and that it’s right around the corner from a street named “Poultry” (not Poultry St, or Poultry Ave, but just Poultry), I took a photo of it. And forgot about it.
Then I came across the photo again, today, and decided to look into it a little. Not much, I must admit; I haven’t exactly done my research here, and for that I apologize. But, according to Wikipedia (woo… boo… whatever), this was in fact the center of the medieval Jewish ghetto in London. I knew that the Jews were expelled from England at some point (turns out it was 1290, under Edward I), and not formally allowed, let alone invited, to return until centuries later (1657, apparently, under Cromwell). But I guess I never gave too much thought, or just never knew, when it was that Jews came to settle in England in the first place, or to what extent.
Wikipedia tells us that there are no solid records of a Jewish presence prior to the Norman Conquest, though many scholars believe it likely that Jews may have entered England with the Romans. Following his Conquest of England, William of Normandy apparently invited Jews to come and settle in England, and went further, granting them freedom to move about the country, to buy and own and sell property, to swear oaths on a Hebrew Bible rather than a Christian one, and certain other freedoms and powers.
It would seem that a so-called “ghetto” in the area around Old Jewry was the chief Jewish neighborhood in London in early medieval times. Other streets / place-names in the area bear similar Jewish-related nomenclatures. It is believed that a burial ground on/near the nearby Jewen Street was the only one the Jewish community was permitted to maintain as a Jewish burial ground; ironically, a few Christian churches in the area take their names from the streets, and thus come to have names like St Lawrence Jewry.
Though I may focus on Japanese history most of the time, I of course cannot help but be curious about, and intrigued by, the histories of my own people. An exhibition at the Center for Jewish History here in New York, on the history of Jews in New York City, was also quite interesting. The small exhibition began with some incredible artifacts from colonial & Revolutionary-era New York, including a printed & handwritten bill for the costs of construction of a Jewish synagogue, Shearith Israel. The Spanish/Portuguese Shearith Israel still operates today. The exhibition leads briefly through the 19th and 20th centuries, and ends with a series of videos in which different members of the community answer the question “what makes a New York Jew?”
We very rarely hear about Jews in mainstream history classes (and not without good reason – you can’t cover each and every minority in every period of history in every part of the world), and it is easy to grow up thinking that maybe there weren’t any Jews at all in medieval England, or Revolutionary-era New York, but there were. And in countless other times and places besides, each with their own sometimes quite fascinating stories.