The city of York, England made headlines at many Jewish media sites this week.
Not because this year marked the 833rd anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of York—one of the most notorious outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in early English and European history.
And not because local authorities finally agreed to renovate the nearly invisible memorial plaque near the castle where the Jewish community was trapped by a violent mob, into a respectable monument to the kedoshim who died here.
No, the city of York has been favored with a blaze of limelight for a very different reason, unrelated to the 1190 massacre. The excitement all over the secular Jewish press is because the city is finally, after 800 years, getting a “rabbi” for its tiny Jewish community—and not just an ordinary traditional rabbi.
The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, as its members call it, has hired a female Reform leader who describes her congregation as a “liberal, inclusive” group “looking to welcome people with an interfaith background.”
If this was not enough to make the Jewish people proud, adding luster to the announcement in most of the write-ups is the news that a new archeological discovery in York has uncovered evidence that the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in the Middle Ages did not spell the absolute end of Jewish life in this town, as was thought.
In fact, less than twenty years later, a new Jewish settlement appears to have flourished for a few decades, report JTA, Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel and other news outlets.
It seems the Jewish lay leaders of this new medieval community, some of the wealthiest men in England, had been invited to settle in York by the city’s rulers who were in desperate need of their financial services. This was just 20 years after the former Jewish community—about 150 men, women and children—had been massacred by the townspeople of York, abetted, some say, by the Kings’ troops.
The Jewish merchants not only accepted the invitation to relocate to York, but played a key role in acquiring a huge property for the church, and assisted in erecting a massive “Guildhall,” the center of civic life in the medieval city, according to the Times of Israel.
This information is backed up by a signed and dated charter, which bears the ancient handwritten signature of one of the lay leaders, Aaron of York. The building of Guildhall was likely just one of several major civic infrastructure projects that Aaron of York helped the city’s clergy with, all in exchange for land for the city’s Jewish cemetery.
The ‘Jew Badge’ is Enforced
In all the rhapsodizing over the supposed Jewish recovery in York in the 1200’s, an important piece of history has been obscured—the fact that the burst of Anglo-Christian good will that enabled Jewish resettlement was purely self-serving and very short-lived.
Already in 1218, Henry III of England proclaimed the Edict of the Badge, a royal decree requiring England’s Jews to wear the “Jew Badge,” shaped the way Christians imagined the luchos looked. In some cities, a “Statute of Jewry” required a yellow pointed badge, a precursor to the yellow star European Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied areas during the Second World War.
The second half of the 13th century saw violent attacks on Jews escalating throughout England. In 1262, some 700 Jews were killed in London when a mob attacked a synagogue in Lothbury Street.
In 1282, the Bishop of London ordered attacks on all synagogues. One year later, in 1283, Jews were accused of “coin-clipping” – shaving bits of silver off the edges of coins. In a heinous atrocity, 600 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London and 293 were hanged.
Harsh taxation impoverished the Jews further and finally, on July 18, 1290, King Edward I signed an Edict of Expulsion. All Jews were ordered to leave England or face execution.
Their property and remaining debts owed to them were signed over to King Edward, a strategy to legalize the enormous plunder. Around 16,000 Jews, out of a total English population of two million, left the English shores, not to be allowed to return for 400 years.
‘A Totally New History of the Jews of York?’
Howard Duckworth, spokesman for the York Liberal Jewish Synagogue, said in a statement, quoted by Times of Israel and other outlets, “We have discovered a totally new history of Jews in York, which for many years has been overshadowed by the massacre at Clifford’s Tower. This research is so much more, a real history anyone can relate to.”
One wonders what the kedoshim of York, many of whom committed suicide with their wives and children in the tower where they were barricaded rather than be forcibly baptized, would think about Duckworth’s declaration that no longer would the massacre “overshadow” York’s reputation.
The monstrous inhumanity inflicted on 150 innocent souls can be finally relegated to the back pages, the Liberal Jewish Community spokesman seemed to say. Because now, “a real history that anyone can relate to,” –the supposed Jewish resurgence in medieval York –has grabbed the limelight.
“When you walk through York now, you see York with totally different eyes,” the synagogue employee promised, in a comment that appeared in numerous articles about the new “rabbi” coming to York.
The bizarreness of the remark speaks for itself. How can one possibly see the city with “totally different eyes?” What new information about medieval York can expunge the blood guilt of wicked people who mercilessly cut down the entire Jewish community, or silence the screams and cries that still haunt the place where the kedoshim went to their deaths refusing to give up their faith?
Imagine strolling through York and suddenly beholding Clifford’s Tower, rebuilt over the ashes of the former wooden stronghold that became a bloody grave for 150 innocent Jewish souls. One imagines the terror of witnessing the raging medieval mob, armed with spears, clubs and swords, assaulting the tower with deafening war cries. The fact that it happened more than 800 years ago offers no solace.
Frozen in time, these searing images and the thought of the despairing victims cowering in the flame-engulfed fortress are as shattering as ever.
The Age of Crusades and Bitter Church Hostility
For over eight centuries, the city of York has had dark and sinister connotations for Jews everywhere. The massacre, commemorated in a Tisha B’av kinah, “Elokim B’alunu Zulaschoh” authored by Rabbi Yosef ben Asher, was considered one of the most notorious pogroms of medieval times.
It became emblematic of an age when the church’s bitter hostility to the Jews, compounded by the anti-Semitic fervor of the Crusades and heightened by Christian envy of Jewish prosperity, climaxed in blood libels and deadly assaults on Jewish communities across Europe.
In those days, news traveled very slowly and people often couldn’t be sure the reports they received—mostly by word of mouth as medieval societies were largely illiterate—were reliable. The York pogrom was different, perhaps because it was recorded in detail by individuals who were close to the events, and whose written accounts flew across Europe, from one Jewish community to another.
Even though the kinah authored by Rabbi Yosef ben Asher is written lyrically, without graphic and concrete description of the pogrom, his lamentation, too, carries great historical weight.
In York, the Jewish lay leaders of the community, Benedict and Joseph, were among the wealthiest Jews in England and lived in striking stone houses that rivaled castles in size and magnificence. Given the stature these men enjoyed with the Crown and with local rulers, no one could have foreseen a time when neither their wealth, royal connections or the palatial fortifications of their homes would offer them protection when the mobs came for them.
The seeds of disaster shot forth when Benedict and Joseph of York traveled with several other prominent Jews to attend King Richard’s coronation in London, to pay their respects on behalf of York’s Jews.
To their shock, their arrival sparked public outrage and they were not only refused entry into the coronation hall but attacked, with some reports claiming they were ordered to be whipped. Not only did Benedict receive wounds he would never recover from, dying in Northampton while trying to return home, but he was also forced to convert to Christianity and adopt the name ‘William.’
On his deathbed he renounced his conversion, historians say, but was ultimately granted neither a Jewish nor Christian burial. His colleague, Joseph, escaped the murderers and made it home. Only to be subsequently trapped with his community in Clifford’s Tower.
Rumor of Royal Edict of Expulsion Opens Floodgates
A rumor that King Richard had ordered the expulsion of the Jews spread across the country like wildfire, and soon mobs of Christians were rioting against their Jewish neighbors with what they believed to be the king’s permission.
In February 1190, attacks began on the Jews in Lynn. These spread to Colchester, Lincoln, Stamford, Norwich, Thetford and other towns, writes History Press. Wealthy Christian landowners, who owed large amounts of money to the Jews of York, now saw this as their chance to rid themselves of their debts.
In March 1190, taking advantage of a fire in the city, they incited a mob to attack Jewish properties. The Benedict mansion was one of the first to be assaulted. Marauders broke in, killed Benedict’s widow and children and set the house on fire. That persuaded Joseph and rest of the community – about 150 people in all, including women and children – to seek refuge in Clifford’s Tower.
The Jews, supposedly under royal protection, were allowed by the warden of the tower to take refuge there. When he left with some excuse, alarmed at the possibility he would switch sides and give the mob a foothold if they opened the tower for him, the Jews made the fateful decision to lock him out.
This paved the way for the sheriff to lay siege to the tower, signaling to the mob that the Jews were no longer under royal protection, and demanding they agree to baptism.
The refugees in the tower included the Torah leaders of the community, French-born Rabbeinu Yom Tov of Joigny, France, a student of Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), one of Ashkenazi Jewry’s foremost rabbonim, and Rabbeinu Eliyahu of York.
According to Ephraim Bonn, who chronicled the events shortly after they happened, on the Friday night of Shabbos Hagadol, March 16, 1190, Rabbeinu Yom Tov made an impassioned speech to the Jews in the tower, urging them to take their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the mob who would forcibly baptize them.
As there were ultimately no surviving eye-witnesses, it will never be known how the mass suicides took place and the mind recoils from trying to grasp how it happened. Did husbands actually take the lives of their wives and children before killing themselves? Did Josef, the community’s lay leader, kill his wife and two children and was then killed by Rabbeinu Yom Tov? We will never know.
The presumption of most scholars is that a majority of the people heeded the rabbi’s words, because only a handful of Jews were alive at daybreak on March 17, when they left the castle on a promise that they would not be harmed if they agreed to be baptized. But it was nothing more than a ruse. The mob showed them no mercy, and slaughtered them all.
The wooden castle with its dead and dying corpses was set ablaze, after which the ringleaders went straight to York Minster where the records of their debts were kept, and set fire to them. This ensured that not only were they free of their debts to the Jews, but that their properties and debts could not be transferred to the Crown.
This action betrayed the calculated intent driving the killers—the determination to avoid repaying their loans to the Jews.
The pogrom at York was seen by the royal house as an affront to King Richard and an inquest was held soon afterwards. The city was punished with a heavy fine, with some citizens jailed and others having their estates seized. But by then the worst of the guilty parties had escaped, and no individuals were ever punished for the heinous crimes of that fateful night.
A Cherem on York?
Some say the rabbonim of that era placed a cherem on York, forbidding Jews from living there during the lifetime of the city’s rulers, yet no actual letters or documents have ever surfaced to support that claim. Remarkably, as we now know, a handful of Jews did take up residence in York about twenty years later and worked hard to rebuild the Jewish community.
According to the Jewish Chronicle, “records show that money-lending by Jews in York was taking place in 1201 and by 1208 there are many specific references to a vibrant York Jewish community with Jewish-owned properties all over the city.”
This was no ghetto-type community restricted to two or three streets; this was an apparently integrated community that seemed to coexist peacefully with its neighbors, the author writes.
Between 1210 and 1250, ancient archives show that York Jews contributed more in taxes to the King’s coffers than the whole of London. Aaron of York (the son of Josef who died in Clifford’s Tower) not only still lived in the city but, from 1236 to 1245, served as the lay leader of Anglo-Jewry.
However, the period of Jewish resurgence was tragically short-lived as the staggering taxes and fines imposed by the church drained the community, and ultimately left most households destitute. Even the fantastically wealthy Aaron, reputed to have been the richest man in the country, died in penury.
Historians discuss the reason for the prominent position that York holds in Anglo-Jewish history, despite the fact that London witnessed more than a thousand Jewish deaths from violent anti-Semitic outbreaks and blood libels during this same time frame. We have no evidence, however, of kinos for those kedoshim, or of a cherem banning Jews from living in London.
According to the Jewish Chronicle, one possible reason for the York victims meriting a special lamentation is the likely kinship between Rabbi Yosef ben Asher, who wrote the kinah, and Rabbeinu Yom Tov. Both were talmidim of Rabbeinu Tam.
“Rabbi Yosef may have known Rabbeinu Yom Tov personally, but even if he did not, he would have felt a close affinity with him and so would have been moved to compose a eulogy for the tragic loss of this great scholar and his community,” author Alan Shaw suggests.
Perhaps it was the more publicized nature of this dreadful event that turned York into an enduring symbol that the Jewish People would forever be hated strangers in their adopted lands. For 200 years, they had been loyal citizens to England after being urged to settle there. They had significantly contributed to society and had helped build up the country’s economy.
Yet, after the death of the relatively benign Henry II in 1189, the crown passed to his eldest son, the infamous “Richard the Lionheart,” and the situation drastically worsened. Under Richard’s instigation, Crusade fever swept the country, bringing with it a sharp rise in Jew-hatred. It also spawned several vicious blood libels accusing Jews of murdering Christian children which led to the lynching and burning at the stake of many innocent Jews.
Over the next few decades, Jews across the country were attacked, vilified, treated brutally and financially ruined. And when they had nothing left, they were heartlessly expelled from the country. 400 years would pass before they would be permitted to return.
The Agony of Rabbeinu Yom Tov
Historians find evidence of a Jewish presence in England dating back to the 11th century with the Norman conquest of 1066, when a number of pioneering Jews came to England from France.
The early Norman kings needed to borrow money to build castles and secure their kingdom, but money-lending was forbidden to Christians, although permitted to Jews. These French-speaking Jews who, under the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), were encouraged to settle in English towns, became the king’s financiers. They were known as the “King’s Jews” and enjoyed the Crown’s protection, in return for which they paid taxes directly to the king.
In time, these enterprising Jews established communities in most of the principal cities of England. In the latter part of the 12th century, members of the Jewish community in Lincoln settled in York which developed into a major center for Torah study headed by one of the greatest Baalei Tosfos from France, Rabbeinu Yom Tov, a talmid of Rabbeinu Tam.
Rabbeinu Yom Tov is said to have been the spiritual inspiration and authority behind the mass suicides in Clifford’s Tower in 1190, where at least 30 households totaling 150 people were barricaded against a raging mob demanding the Jews undergo baptism and convert to Christianity.
With the mob about to break down the castle’s fortifications to slaughter or forcibly baptize the captive Jews, Rabbeinu Yom Tov grasped the hopelessness of the situation and heroically led his people through the gei tzalmoves, inspiring and fortifying them to do the unthinkable.
Both Jewish and non-Jewish sources laud this great Torah scholar, including Ephraim of Bonn in his account of the massacre in his Sefer Hazechira; Yosef ben Asher of Chartres’s kinah about the pogrom; and the History of English Affairs by William of Newbury, who lived six years after the York massacre.
Rabbeinu Yom Tov is described by the non-Jewish Newbury as the “famous master of Jewish law who is said to have come from lands beyond the sea to teach the English Jews. This man was held in honor by all, and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the Jewish prophets.”
From the accounts of Ephraim of Bonn and Rabbi Yosef ben Asher, Rabbeinu Yom Tov was also a renowned poet who, with his gifted pen and compassionate heart, sought to inspire his fellow Jews with liturgical poems expressing their plight in galus and the yearning for Divine redemption.
The most famous of these is Omnom Kein, a stirring prayer found in the Ashkenazi Yom Kippur machzor, accepted by almost all Ashkenazi Jewish communities as part of Maariv on Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur night, when Jews recite this emotional poem with its soaring pleas to the Creator for forgiveness and redemption, one may also give thought to the devastating events surrounding Rabbeinu Yom Tov’s final days and the ghastly choices he was called upon to make for his people.