Sandys Row Synagogue, London’s oldest still functioning Ashkenazi Synagogue, was established in the 19th century by Dutch Jews from Amsterdam in a building that was originally constructed as a Protestant chapel. In this essay writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein, who is working on a book that explores the story of the synagogue, describes its current status and complex history — as well as her personal relationship with the synagogue and London’s East End.
London’s Sandys Row Synagogue: Delving into Layers of History
By Rachel Lichtenstein
I moved to East London more than 25 years ago searching for the lost world of Jewish Whitechapel which I had heard so much about from my paternal grandparents, Malka and Gedaliah Lichtenstein, who met there after arriving in the 1930s as refugees from Poland. They were soon part of a thriving community of Yiddish-speaking, predominately Eastern European and Russian Jews, who settled in the area from the 1880s onwards. By 1900 there were more than 100,000 Jews living there. By the time I arrived in the early 1990s there were fewer than 5,000. The kosher butchers, the slaughterhouses, the bewigged women, the shtiebls on every street corner, the friendly societies and Yiddish-speaking market traders had all but vanished.
Determined to find out more about this disappearing landscape, I spent decades living and working in the area, gathering and recording the memories of the last of the Jewish inhabitants, researching and writing about the place and its rich Jewish history, which is described in my first book, Rodinsky’s Room (Granta, 1999, with Iain Sinclair).
Rodinsky’s Room is partly set in the beautiful Ashkenazi synagogue in Princelet Street where my grandparents were married. I was lucky enough to work there as the unpaid artist in residence throughout most of the 1990s. During that period I also became a tour guide of the area and my passion for recording the rapidly vanishing Jewish East End is ongoing.
In 2013 I secured a part-time position at Sandys Row, London’s oldest still functioning Ashkenazi Synagogue, which is situated a few streets away from the Princelet Street Synagogue. Since then I have been working in the building, collecting memories, photographs and artifacts, as well as uncovering more about the role of the synagogue in the local community. I have really fallen in love with the place and its unique history, which is connected to but different from my own.
Constructed in 1766 as a Huguenot chapel, the building was taken over in 1867 by the Dutch Ashkenazi congregation, which engaged Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous British synagogue architects of the time, to re-model it into a synagogue. Joseph kept many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony, and added a new three-storey extension creating space for a vestry and accommodation for the rabbi and a caretaker. He also designed a beautiful mahogany Ark, which can still be seen recessed into the eastern wall of the building framed by neo-classical columns.
The synagogue was consecrated in 1870 with “an immense throng of Jewish working men assembled – with devotion, enthusiasm and solemn demeanor – to join in dedicating the humble structure to the worship of God.” Since then it has never closed its doors. It was described in the Jewish press at the time as “a sacred place…simple, yet charming,” a building that “invites the worshipper to religious meditation.” I would say the same holds true for the interior of Sandys Row today, which remains a modest but welcoming place. The sanctuary is an oasis of calm from the bustle of the city just outside the door, which manages to evoke the same sense of quite contemplation described by the journalist who visited nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.
Part of my role at Sandys Row has included depositing original material from the synagogue into the nearby Bishopsgate Institute Archives. Most of the synagogue’s records were retrieved from the synagogue’s eighteenth century basement, which still exists practically unchanged from the time when the building was erected. The documents include: nineteenth century marriage certificates, an almost complete collection of handwritten minute books from the time the synagogue opened until the mid-twentieth century, and other important papers relating to the history of the building. We are currently digitizing and transcribing the entire collection, which is available for members of the public to view in the reading rooms. There are plans to develop the basement into a Jewish heritage space.
I have also been involved in collating an oral history collection of past and present members of the synagogue. Most of them now live in the suburbs, but a few elderly members remain in East London. These people spoke of an area once bursting with Jewish life. Even during the 1950s and 1960s, the synagogue flourished, Harvey Rifkind, the current president of Sandys Row, told me. “On Shabbat there were two hundred people there and on the High Holy Days you could not get a seat. People literally sat on the floor in the aisles.”
All of our interviewees had fond memories to share. Some — like Pamela Freedman and current board member Rose Edmunds — are directly related to the Dutch founding members.
“They used to call it the Dutch shul,” said Pamela. “All my late husband’s family were members. He was the president, his uncle was the president, I think the grandfather was president.”
Rose, whose original Dutch name was Engelsmann, remembered High Holy Days as a child: “There used to be wardens who sat in front of the bimah with top hats on. We used to have a great time on Simchat Torah where we’d have apples and flags and march around. My great aunts used to sit in the front row and my mother’s generation sat in the row behind. And we kids used to sit in the back. And now I sit in the front row. There’s nobody. So, the reminder of time passing is very poignant there.”
Today the synagogue is open for tourists as well as remaining a place of worship. Every weekday the building is used for mincha, and weddings and Bar Mitzvahs have started to take place again in recent years.
Things may be different now from what they were in the past, but Sandys Row endures.
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October 29, 2017
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Artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein is working on a book that explores the story of the Sandys Row synagogue. Click HERE to visit her web site.