Six years ago, a few dozen Jews in the English city of York founded a congregation—which, for lack of a synagogue, holds services in a Quaker meeting house—and are now seeking to hire a part-time rabbi. The person chosen will be York’s first rabbi in over 700 years. Until 1978, Jews generally avoided the city, notorious because of the anti-Jewish riot that took place there in the wake of the coronation of Richard the Lionheart. A dirge commemorating the event remains part of the Tisha b’Av liturgy for many Ashkenazi communities the world over. David Horovitz writes:
In 1190, the 150 or so Jews of York, having seen several members of their community murdered by local mobs amid a series of anti-Jewish killings that were gradually spreading north from London, sought refuge in the local castle, believing that here they might enjoy royal protection. But King Richard I was on his way to the Crusades, and his sheriff and the archbishop of York were also away. Far from being safe, the Jews found themselves besieged by a mob baying for their deaths—a crowd that included prominent locals who owed them money.
As recorded some twenty years later by a local clergyman, William of Newbury, citing what he said were eyewitness accounts, most of the trapped Jews, forced to choose between certain death and forced conversion to Christianity, decided at the instigation of a revered rabbi who was among them to take their own lives. They first set fire to their possessions, and then, as the flames spread through the tower’s timbers, slit each other’s throats.
Writes William: “There was [among them] a certain old man, a most famous Doctor of the Law, [who told his coreligionists], ‘If we fall into the hands of the enemy we shall die at their will and amidst their jeers. And so since the life which the Creator gave us, He now demands back from us, let us willingly and devoutly render it up to Him with our own hands.’” A minority of the Jews chose conversion. . . . Enticed out of the tower with promises of mercy, they were promptly slaughtered.
So the fact that York today has any kind of Jewish community is worthy of note. . . . But there’s more. Finally, over 800 years after the terrible events that unfolded here for Jews, York is preparing to recognize and memorialize them more properly.