Thursday, 21 September 2017

Spitalfields Journey

-          Sandys Row Synagogue
-          Dennis Severs’ House (18 Folgate Street)

London E.1 7HW

I think this ‘package’ had been sold as part of the imminent ‘Open London’ events but for us it was a handy combination of venues whose opening times are quite selective. Coming via the Overground to Shoreditch High Street was a doddle for Linda though Jo managed to mislay herself between Liverpool Street and the meeting point, just outside the synagogue.

This particular part of Spitalfields (once the fields surrounding a leper hospital) was chosen by Henry VIII as the area where his archers and artillery could practise their skills, well out of earshot of any of his palaces. Also down the ‘poor end’ of London, close enough to the Docks and downwind of the richer parts… One of the earlier waves of economic migrants, Huguenot artisans (weavers or gem cutters for example) from Holland settled here in the early 17th century and they erected a chapel on this site. The size and proportions of the building (larger than it looks from the outside) are very harmonious and the minimal decoration includes some wooden features painted orange, as in ‘the House of Orange’. During the following 150 years the building changed hands several times and probably stood empty for a while as well. In the early years of the 19th century there were more arrivals from Holland – this time Jewish Ashkenazi families, who had probably already fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Like many of London’s newcomers they set up home close to where they landed and were soon employed in the local industries. However in those days if you did not work you did not get paid and the Jewish  mourning ritual requires eight days of not leaving the house (also not shaving or washing if you are fully observant) so fifty families set up a friendly society with funds to help members get through the financial hardships consequent to ‘sitting shiva’. Sandys Row became their synagogue, at that time one of about 65 in the East End, now one of three – as often happens when the newer communities become more settled younger generations move out to the suburbs and the congregations dwindle.

However the Dutch spirit of independence lingered on and the synagogue remains as noted one of just three still active in this area. It is not affiliated to either of the two main groups of synagogues in the UK and still manages to continue albeit with a reduced congregation, which meets fortnightly. But should they fail to assemble the requisite ten men to be able to hold a service there will be difficulties, and as this is still a more orthodox-leaning group women are of course not allowed to be part of this select group. (The congregation’s pragmatism extends to conniving at a bit of Sabbath rule-breaking when it comes to travelling to ensure the necessary numbers for service, but not to this more radical ‘reform’ idea.) Women sit apart from the men – upstairs in the very fine gallery or, if unable to manage the stairs, in a curtained-off area.

Synagogues, like mosques, go in for very little adornment so apart from a Star of David in the window the most embellished objects are the scrolls of the Torah which sit within the Ark, facing East (to Jerusalem). There was some thought that the first Jewish worshippers here had to reverse the orientation of the chapel to achieve this alignment. The ancient Hebrew texts (Books I-V of the Old Testament) are carefully hand-written. When they are no longer legible, rather than being destroyed, they are buried, or in the case of this synagogue, carefully walled up in the cellar.

Talking of the cellar we were invited to descend to this spacious area beneath the place of worship and here indeed was a brick wall enclosing the no longer legible Torahs. The volunteers who help run the synagogue (and the tours) had also found packed away in drawers and cupboards many old heavy and on occasion lavishly embellished cloths that had previously been used to cover the Torah scrolls. It’s a shame no-one had thought to iron them before putting them aside. A local supporter of the synagogue, though not member of the congregation, has a plan to set up a museum of the East End down in this basement.  For this he will need to identify the age of the various Torah scroll covers. The most exciting find was a large iron chest with an intricate and complex locking mechanism in which the V&A had shown some interest. To me it looked continental and certainly as old if not older than the synagogue itself so possibly had come over with one of the Dutch or other groups? A mystery yet to be solved. Though a short visit, thanks to our guide Tony we had learnt a lot about the history of local area and its communities and some of the religious practices of Judaism.

From there it was a short walk through the more modern parts of Spitalfields to 18 Folgate Street – the venue known as the Dennis Severs House

Dennis himself, who was an artist, had bought this historic house and collected items around which he had created a story fitting to the artefacts and the house and the area and then opened it to the public but most definitely did not want it known as a ‘museum’. There are two rooms on each of five levels from the basement cellar (complete with remains of the Spital lepers) and well provisioned kitchen through his and her room sets – these are candle lit and some included a warming fire – until you get to the top floor where the poor weavers were reduced to multi-occupancy and poverty and living with the job, where they could. The smells are mostly benign of sweetmeats and smoke and would I suspect have been much fouler back in the day with rank chamber pots and unwashed bodies. Our party of 30, which looked very modest in the synagogue, rather overfilled this house (although admitted in staggered groups of eight) which rather detracted from the atmosphere though we all adhered to the requested silence so we could hear the sounds of ‘the family Jervis’ having just gone about their business through the ages, starting with a room the age of the house when new and finishing with Victoria’s accession. Unlike the synagogue photography was of course forbidden.

The experience, because that is what it is, was a bit reminiscent of Punchdrunk Theatre with carefully curated ‘sets’ where perusal of small details may give you clues as to the residents’ life style and what had just been going on before you arrived... I think when this was first made available to members of the public it was truly original and absorbing; I fear years down the line there have been imitators of this kind of display which you can now see in more mainstream settings. However the attention to detail was meticulous, the ensemble effect consumate and the love and care behind it palpable, and it made an excellent complement to see the inside of a house in this area (which is so threatened with further development) alongside the place of worship of some of the erstwhile residents.    

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