The Other immigrants of Carribee Island: Wolverhampton’s Jewish community 2

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Wolverhampton’s Fryer Street Synagogue. From Wolverhampton History

This post follows my first on the early Jewish community in mid-19th century Wolverhampton, last week. We explored the Bernsteins who lived at 64 Canal Street, and the opening of the Fryer Street Synagogue, Wolverhampton’s first permanent such building.

By 1871, I can’t find the Bernsteins in the Canal Street area, but I can find others I suspect are Jewish residents in the neighbourhood: David and Dinah Tompowski at 87 Stafford Street. David was a furniture broker born in 1836; he and his wife were born in Poland but were British subjects. He also crops up in Jones’ Mercantile Directory in 1865 as a furniture dealer, at the same address. They had probably been in Wolverhampton since at least 1862, judging by the birthplaces and ages of their children, Isaac, Simon, Rachel, Eli and Sarah. The Tompowskis are another example of names indicating ethnicity – like my McDonaghs can be traced to Co Mayo, or my Bridgets almost certainly have Irish Catholic roots, these are solidly Old Testament names common among all Jewish communities.

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There’s a world of significance in the layout of a Jewish synagogue – a strong example of Henri Lefebvre’s representational space. These are the plans for the Fryer Street synagogue, 1902.

If they were practicing Jews, they too would have found their way to the Fryer Street synagogue, built in 1858 and just around the corner from Stafford Street. It had its problems during its early years – a Prussian Jew absconded with £400 worth of jewellery, and the synagogue struggled along and fell into arrears at times (this selection of clippings from the Jewish Chronicle is invaluable). In 1867, a member named Barnard Zusman was robbed and murdered in Wellington (Birmingham Journal, 20th June 1868). However, by 1874 the Jewish population of Wolverhampton was increasing so significantly that a new synagogue was mooted, although as far as I know this wasn’t accomplished until a fire caused major damage to the existing building and a new one – that exists today was constructed out of its remains, in the “Ashkenazian” style, in 1902.

By this time, Ashkenazis were by far the largest grouping within Judaism. Forming as a specific culture within Central and Eastern Europe, they migrated in large numbers all over the world and have made substantial cultural and demographic impacts. If a synagogue was labelled “Ashkenazi style” probably meant that it had Moorish architectural influences, which Ashkenazi Jews associated with a golden age of Judaism in medieval Spain. This is evident in Wolverhampton, but would be a common site in many European cities at the time – think of all the cinemas named the Alhambra, and that’ll give you an idea. See Ivan Kalamar’s helpful chapter on the subject for more. At its peak, the Wolverhampton synagogue had around 150 members, including Jewish servicemen from RAF Cosford. However, numbers fell as in many religious communities, and in 1999 the synagogue closed, and Wolverhampton’s orthodox Jewish community moved to Birmingham’s Singers Hill Synagogue. The building is now occupied by the Church of England (Continuing).

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Wolverhampton synagogue interior. Picture by George Chryssides

Religious buildings are perhaps the clearest example of Henri Lefebvre’s ‘representational space’, in which memory, symbols, the body and myth (in all its complex forms) combine to create a space as it lived and passively experienced. Everywhere has a little of this about – think of how you navigate your own neighbourhood by shop signs, by pubs, by memories, by the distance you walk (which you might measure in a unit based on the size of a human foot). But a synagogue, like many churches, is something else again, where every dimension is planned and potent, where each object draws the attention and the memory. I grew up attending the sort of church which entirely eschewed any sort of visual symbol, but that was fascinated by the typology and significance of the Jewish tabernacle and temple, for example. Every part of those Old Testament buildings down to their sounds and smells, its their aspects and architecture – like the referential Moorish style – was significant.

Dr Deirdre Burke has produced a very helpful video for English Heritage which explains much of the symbolism of the Wolverhampton Synagogue, and it’s well worth a watch. On walking to (not riding to, remember) the synagogue, its dual date reminds you where you are – one date in the Western calendar, and its equivalent since the Jewish calculation of creation. On entering the synagogue through separate male and female doors, the sexes remain in different galleries to worship. The picture above shows the Aron Kodesh, the Ashkenazi term for the Torah ark. Harking back to the lost ark of the covenant, which had the most prominent place in the original temple (although thoroughly secret, compared with this), and which holds the synagogues Torah scrolls. Typically it would have faced East to Jerusalem – here it’s more SSE but probably the closest the architects could get. Above it you can see a beautiful golden ten commandments and the curtain typically placed outside the Ark’s doors. From the Ark, the scrolls are taken and paraded on their way to the bimah, the pulpit in the centre. Space is used acutely and consciously to remind attendees of their place in society, in the world and in God’s eyes.

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Wolverhampton Synagogue

Orthodox synagogues are actually less visually symbolic than, say, a Roman Catholic or high Anglican church, but there is still plenty there to guide a worshipper’s thought to the numinous and beyond this earth’s sufferings. In many ways its not surprising that the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches of the nineteenth-century worked hard with, and were appreciated by the poor of Britain’s grimmest cities – the space of ‘somewhere else’ can be an important comforting and motivating principle. Wolverhampton’s Jews also saw a need to help – they set up a society “having as its object the relief of the poor” in 1872. In October of that year it had 40 subscribers from 1d per week upwards, and a president (A. Benjamin), treasurer (S. Aaron) and secretary (Zadock Rudelsheim, also the synagogues schoolteacher) (Jewish Chronicle, 4/10/1872).

The story of Wolverhampton’s ‘Israelites’ is one I’d love to follow up on, if I had the time. The history of Jews in Britain is a long and depressing one, and Jews were often caricatured in Victorian society, just as the Irish were – think of Fagan for instance. But the reality for many Jewish immigrants was as grim as for the Irish. In London’s Spitalfields, they were most often desperately poor textile workers, for instance. In many ways then, they offer a comparison to the Irish immigrant in the nineteenth century. For many, they were distinctly Other: a different religion, a different nationality, suspect political or economic motives, perhaps different skin or clothes, perhaps they were seen through the filter of poverty also (although the Tompowskis and Bernsteins don’t necessarily confirm this). I wonder whether their small presence among a large group of Others, the Irish, made their lives easier or harder? Perhaps they were lumped in with the foreigners; perhaps they were noted as distinct from the popular view of the riotous, drunken Irishman. Both groups certainly retained a highly distinctive identity within the town though, and not only that but a highly distinctive space; so perhaps it’s appropriate that some of Wolverhampton’s Jews found themselves amongst the town’s Other immigrant populations.

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