Living in the Shadow: The Massacre in York, 1190

by Rabbi Elisheva Salamo, originally published in Evolve

As a child, I was fascinated with the tapestry of Bayeux. I was brought up with a needle in my hand, a lover of horses and falcons and antiques and stories. I was taught to look at details for hidden charm, so the tapestry fit into much of my aesthetic. It’s worth looking it up if you don’t know of it, for it recounts the lead-up to the battle of Hastings, in which William the conqueror from Normandy won rulership of England from Harold II, then the appointed successor of the recently deceased king Edward the first. William had some reason to claim England, but that, too, you may read elsewhere.

The important thing is that unbeknownst to my 11-year-old self embroidering crewel work horses, William brought Jews with him from Normandy and beyond when he settled in England. Recognizing their value in the economic sphere, my spiritual ancestors (my biological ancestors at the time were wandering about elsewhere in Europe) were settled in this new country, largely in London, and then strung out like a necklace along the east coast in the larger cities of the time: Norwich, Lincoln and York, now the place I call home. To understand how isolating this was, the walk from York to Lincoln would take three days, and London over a week, though clearly faster on a good horse.

The Jews of England enjoyed the protection of the crown but were also subject to high taxes themselves, as well as taking on banking functions and collecting money from the king’s subjects. Being ‘owned’ by the king, it was a situation of gain, sort of. Usury, the lending of money with interest, was prohibited between Christians, but the Jews could fill this function, and many nobles as well as some churches were deeply indebted. With small communities (the whole population is estimated at 5,000 in 1200), the Jews were vulnerable to attacks by those whose projects were more grandiose than the projected income, as a dead Jew could lead to a burned note of repayment.

Under the rule of William the Conqueror’s great grandson, Henry Plantagenet, Jews were allowed more freedoms, and the community remained a source of a great deal of income for the king. This small foothold was undermined as debtors increased in rancor, the Church preached about the inferiority of Jews and the mission of the Crusades infected the country.

At the death of Henry and succession of his son, Richard the Lionhearted, this laden mixture reached a tipping point. Jews tried to attend his coronation but were rebuffed. Onlookers hurled insults, then stones, then came to blows. This led to mob violence and a massacre of Jews in London. Caught up in this were two representatives from the Jewish community in York — Benedict and Josce — and Benedict was first forced to convert, then died as a result of wounds on his way home. Angered, King Richard issued a decree of protection for the Jews in England.

Josce returned to York, where resentments towards the Jews were simmering as well. Five months later, perhaps in the wake of a fire in the city, a mob led by Richard Malebisse attacked the Jewish community. They went to the stone house (buildings in stone were only available to the wealthy) occupied by Benedict’s family and killed them, as you can imagine, in a rather unpleasant way. Led by Yosce, and including Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, the majority of the city’s Jewish population then sequestered themselves in the wooden tower on top of the city’s defensive motte, a space owned by the king. After a three-day siege, with calls from outside for forced baptism, the community saw the direness of the situation. Understanding that the mob was bent on death, most of the Jews decided that it was preferable to take their own lives. Those who did exit the tower were killed, and the rest organized their deaths, with the men killing their families, and Rabbi Yom Tov killing the men before taking his own life. In the process, the tower was set on fire, so as not to allow for desecration of the bodies by the mob. March 16, 1190 became one of the blackest days in the history of the Jewish people, with some 150 Jews dead.

Immediately after the massacre, deeds of debt owed to the Jews held in York Minster were burned. And somehow, the burnt and tormented bodies of the Jews who died in the tower were carried across town and buried, without the usual orderliness, in the area outside the city walls known as Jewbury. There is evidence of Jewish burials there from 1177, when the first deaths in the new population must have necessitated a cemetery. We do not know who buried them: a small remaining Jewish population, the sheriff’s men or some sympathetic citizens.

King Richard was livid and called for fines to the perpetrators (probably rather less in the end than they had owed their Jewish moneylenders), as well as a resettlement of York with Jews from Lincoln. By 1220, there was once again a thriving and seemingly peacefully integrated Jewish presence in York. Among the leading citizens was Aaron of York, possibly Josce’s son, whose rented house on Coney Street also included a synagogue at the back. He and his father-in-law, Leo, were among the most influential Jews in England, both holding the title of “chief representative,” and by 1240, Aaron’s business acumen made him the richest as well. He has assisted the leadership of York Minster in purchasing the Guildhall (still a great place for a feast!). New examination of period documents indicate that he was part of a deal involving the erasure of debt owed to the Jewish community by the minster that led to the improvement of the north transept and the installation of the vast grisaille set of windows (known as the “Jewish Window”), in return for land extending the Jewish cemetery at Jewbury. Research into this second Jewish community is ongoing, and part of the exciting thing about being the current rabbi here is being kept abreast of all the latest discoveries. For now, though we have only a handful of names of medieval Jewish residents of York, we have more and more evidence for the integrated role of the Jews within England in the period leading up to the expulsion.

There is evidence for the integrated role of the Jews within England in the period leading up to the expulsion.

Jews were expelled from England at the behest of King Edward 1 in 1290, only to be reinvited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1656. Somehow, the new community did not settle in any numbers in York, and there is a rumor that a herem, a religious ban, had been placed on living in York after the massacre of 1190. That rumor is unfounded, as evidenced by the second wave of Jewish community in the 13th century and a small shul established near to Jewbury in the 1870s, by immigrants fleeing Eastern Europe, who met on the top floor of a shop and eventually possessed three Torah scrolls. This latter lasted about 100 years, supported by visiting rabbis from nearby Leeds, and then disbanded.

Some 10 years ago, the founders of my current community gathered all the Jews they could locate, and York Liberal was formed. We meet in lovely rented rooms or the chapel of the university where I am the Jewish student advisor. We are mostly Saturday-morning shul-goers; about 40 percent of our membership comes to pray and learn and eat a meal together. We are not more remarkable than any community of Jews in the world. And we are indeed remarkable!

Our members are like your members: We are in a range of colors, we choose romantic partners based on love and attraction. We are educated, we are less educated, we love learning. We come from backgrounds in Orthodox synagogues, Progressive synagogues and no synagogues. Some of us grew up Quaker, Catholic, Muslim or within the Church of England. A goodly number of us have ferreted out a previously hidden Judaism in our families and have joined to engage and explore. We suffer from and are achingly aware of all forms of antisemitism, we wonder whether to take off our stars (and we have had one terrifying incident where some youth tore a Magen David [Star of David] from the neck of a member) or our kippot when we leave prayers. My people rejoice at the naming of a baby and surround her with Torah and blessings. We have formed a hevre kaddisha (a burial society) and have a cemetery to the south of the city for burial of our precious deceased. We are deeply engaged in work throughout the interfaith community. We live in all parts of the city, in houses and apartments. We have friends and sometimes partners who are not Jews, and who in their love for us, support our journey.

We thrive in the filtered light that is the shadow of the tower, blooming not just in spite of the darkness that hovers over us but in part because of it.

We live in a small world, this Jewish community of York, and so we run into one another at events and make sure to chat with one another. We have keen ears for a Jewish name and are attuned to outreach on a very personal level. Like other synagogues, we strive to make all our adherents welcome, included and enriched. We are especially good at growing connections between people and have been known to burst into joy spontaneously during prayer. In all this, we are ever aware that we live in the shadow of the tower, myself almost literally (I can see it from the end of my street). Like hostas and Columbine, and yes, bleeding hearts, we thrive in the filtered light that is the shadow of the past of our community, blooming not just in spite of the darkness that hovers over us but in part because of it. We are a testament to the possible, we Jews of York.

I want to tell you some of my musings about being the rabbi here, and they may or may not be read, as you wish, in light of the massacre of 1190. The simple daughter of a teacher and an eye doctor, I am the heir to the courage of a rabbi who set precedents for honor and community well-being in a multifaith society. When I stand near his unmarked and long unremarked grave, I feel I hold Rabbi Yom Tov’s tradition of exploration and now must mine it for both steadfastness and leniency. We have so little left of him: no children recorded, sparse piyutim and commentaries, a whisper of response to modernity. We know he was a disciple of Rabbenu Tam of Troyes, the grandson of Rashi. We have examples of his liturgical poetry, some of it tied into grief about the persecution of his people. This year I made sure to include some of his work in our Yom Kippur liturgy, to re-establish his name in the place he called home, though he was born far away.

I, too, was born elsewhere, and came here to help build the community. Like him, I am faced with being “other” in a relatively monochromatic culture, in which the fundamental beliefs of my neighbors may lead them to suspicion of the unknown. There must have been a huge infrastructure to create in the absence of Amazon overnight deliveries. Imagine the times and the work that needed to be done to maintain a halakhic life here in the 1180s. Where did one find wool for tzitzit, get tefillin for the bar mitzvah boy, find a scribe who could write the klaf (inscribed parchment) for mezuzot? I wonder how they got their meat shechted (ritually slaughtered) or if they relied on a more plant-based diet, as I do, in the absence of kosher supplies. Living within a small, walled city, it would have been easy to set the eruv (permitting one to carry) for Shabbat and festivals. Did he have a relationship, as I am fortunate enough to do, with the Dean of York Minster? Did he give mishlo’akh manot (gifts of food on Purim) to his non-Jewish neighbors? Who did he invite to share his Passover Seder table?

We know that Rabbi Yom Tov made a ruling inviting leniency with respect to allowing a non-Jew to light a fire in a Jewish household on Shabbat. One could imagine that this was a response to the cold Yorkshire winters, but I like to think that he, like me, spoke with other faith leaders, had neighbors who were not Jewish and came to cherish a balance that allowed for relationships that traversed communities. If the woman from next door comes to light my fire, her role in my life shifts from that of a stranger to that of a helper, to that of a trusted person, and perhaps, to that of a friend. Rabbi Yom Tov makes me believe that medieval Jewry grew personal ties to their Catholic community. They were not just here to make money and did not live only in fear or barricaded in their homes. Much as we do today.

On days when I pass the rebuilt stone tower where the massacre took place, I think of his leadership back in March of 1190. I imagine discussions with Josce and others after the riots in London, and the beginnings of a plan, just in case. The fire, the lack of protection (the sheriff had gone to fight in the Crusades). How do we trace his steps on that fateful night in March? Did he stop at people’s homes to tell them to join him? Were people at shul when the decision was taken to gather in the tower? How to choose what to bring, how long and with what resources might they rely upon the king’s protection or the mob’s anger? They clearly brought knives, though not enough food for a protracted stay. I think of the Torah — the community must have had a Torah. Did he carry the scroll with him? If so, it was likely burned in the fire, preventing its desecration. Imagine Rabbi Yom Tov, in haste, taking the scroll from the aron kodesh (ark), climbing the hill without looking back, storing it in safety for a time. And then, it was no longer safe.

Late in August of last year, when the massacre of Jews was far away in time, I carried my family scroll — a refugee from Eastern Europe — to the top of the stairs and entered the tower with it: I realized that this was likely the first time a Torah had been brought to that site since 1190. We were there for publicity photos, as I’m the first rabbi living full time in York since the 13th century. And I held it in my hands, the small Torah from the east, then the west, and now back to a site of dread. The day was chilly, but clear. Flowers dotted the grassy motte as I looked out of the tower, dazzled by the view. It was a very small act, but so large that I almost had to sit down. I knew I was leaving that tower alive, that my daughter will inherit the scroll, that the future of the Jewish people will be in part enriched, not saddened, by my presence there. The poignancy of it fills me with questions.

Rabbi Yom Tov must have prepared for the opposite result. Did he read from the Torah on Shabbat Hagadol, the last day of his life? Did he find within the crevices of the sacrifices in Leviticus the strength to make the sacrifice he was to perform? How might he have framed the plan in his drash (talk during the Torah service)? We know some people did not die in the tower. What might he have said to them in parting? Was there water brought so he could wash his hands, so they could wash their hands, like the Levites bringing an offering to the altar in expiation? Did he speak about the concept of Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God by giving up one’s life) or was he quiet in the face of the evil fate outside? If he could stop to pray once he was the only person left alive, what did he say? Standing in the midst of his people, faithful and glazed with their departure from this world, did he recite the Shema one last time before he took his own life? I cannot imagine the horror and the determination. I am lost in the awfulness of it all.

And so I insist that we must use this story — the terrible and terrifying act of death at the hands of those we love in the face of an untamed and resistant fury as a way forward. It is a bleak place, this mountain on which we stand, ready to redeem the horror of the past. But I am not alone. I join so many, so very many, whose experience of history has led them to hope and rebuilding in the face of hatred and destruction. In light of Oct. 7, it becomes even more imperative. We can stay in mourning and despair, and to a degree, we must. And we must also repair, renew, reconstruct and rededicate, so that our children and their children will take the Torah scrolls of the future into and out of all places of danger, and light candles of hope and sadness by the graves of those whose lives have counted among the unjustly killed.

The bones of those buried in Jewbury bring us to something that the world needs to know: that Jews belong everywhere, that our neighbors sometimes become our allies and that hundreds of years after tragedy, redemption is possible.

This year, we celebrated the first night of Hanukah at the tower. It was not the first time that the light of hope and rededication had shone in the old building; my shamash (the community’s administrator) had started the tradition. The tea was hot, the cakes delectable. The light cast shadows on members, friends and supporters. On the last night of Hanukah, my community was joined by the Dean of York Minster, the Lord High Mayor, the Sheriff and the Archbishop of York at Jewbury, where we lit 150 memorial candles and used the same flame to light our menorot. And then we sang: in Hebrew, in Yiddish, in Ladino, in English. It may be the first time Jewish children of York have stood in memory of those lives with light in their hands and joy on their lips.

And so the bones of those buried in Jewbury bring us to something that the world needs to know, that extends well beyond the walls of our meeting places, the cover of our siddur, and perhaps even the longing in our hearts. They remind us that there is no herem (prohibition) against space. That Jews belong everywhere. That our neighbors sometimes become our allies. That hundreds of years after tragedy, redemption is possible. Like the forest that regrows after conflagration, our youth stand as testimony to the future, holding the past in their hands. It is a privilege to be part of their journey.