Yesterday (800 years ago to be precise) the lights went out for medieval Jews in York. Today we come to the end of Hanukkah (14th December to be precise) and the start of a return to a medieval city.
March 1190: rioting spreads from Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln to reach medieval York. Around 150 Jews, the entire Jewish population of the city, flee to the protection of York Castle where they are besieged. Amongst them is a man called Jocenus who, together with his friend Benedict, offered gifts to Richard I at his coronation just a year earlier – even though they had been forbidden from attending the ceremony. When they were later mobbed Jocenus managed to get home to York. Benedict got as far as Northampton where he died of injuries sustained in the attack.
Now mob rule has come again. Outside York Castle the militia look to force the last Jews out of the county. No-one is coming to rescue anyone. It falls to Rabbi Yomtob of Joigney to call on those last Jews – including Jocenus – there in the castle beside him to refuse their fate: baptism or murder. Many Jews follow the Rabbi’s exhortations; men slaughter the women and children of their households, then set themselves alight in a wooden keep. Those who surrender and step out of the castle walls are killed by the waiting crowd. There are no survivors.
For more than 800 years the city of York has been the darkest of places for Jews world-wide. That 1190 massacre is notorious in Jewish history, an event commemorated in lamentation – or kinah – recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. Last week, on the third day of Hanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, a three-year old boy lit a candle in York’s Guildhall watched by York’s lord mayor and a host of civic leaders. This was the moment when history became today and a new Jewish community marked a symbolic return to a city that had all but seen the last of the Jews a long time ago.
In the 2011 census for York a mere 165 people identified themselves as Jewish. The city had been without a synagogue since 1975. Today, encouraged by the precepts of Liberal Judaism, there are Jews living in York once more. This new fledgling community attracts some 60 or so people to its monthly services at York’s old Quaker hall. One of them was little Tzofiya Stefanov-King, candle in hand, leading us all out of the darkness of a medievalist past, and lighting up a path into a beginning that is also a return.