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CULTURE TRAVEL FOOTBALL HERITAGE LIVERPOOL

- since 2011 -

Raiders of the well looked-after Ark


Friday, 16 September 2011


A journey into Liverpool Judaism with Dicky Lewis and Mr Spock

Where Leonard Nimoy got his Vulcan thing from

Where Leonard Nimoy got his Vulcan thing from

She's a terrible tease is Naomi Hoyland. There must be 40 of us huddled inside the dimly-lit foyer of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and still our tour guide waits for two more names from the list that are yet to arrive. To pass the time she tells us about the tiles beneath our feet, similar to those in St George's Hall but coloured-through rather than merely surface-painted, so no need to keep them perpetually covered up from public gaze and scuffing shoes.

She runs through the synagogue's history: completed in 1874, the work of William and George Audsley, two Scottish architects who'd earlier designed the altogether different Welsh Presbyterian Church on the opposite side of Princes Road not far from the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas that looks like something out of Thessaloniki, right here in Toxteth.

I've read a lot about 'this magnificent building' (Phaidon: Moorish Style) hailed as 'one of the finest examples of Orientalism in British synagogue architecture' (Pevsner Guide to Liverpool) and recently re-listed as Grade I; walked or driven many times past the brick-and-sandstone exterior with its Norman arched doorway, great rose window and turrets once topped with spectacular minarets.

Now, finally, I just want to see the inside, likened to 'something out of the Arabian Nights' by Pevsner and 'the Glory of Israel' according to architect and historian HA Meek. Naomi points out a floor inscription in Hebrew that translates as Blessed are you who enter before easing open a set of hefty inner doors to a general intake of breath…

Before we enter I should explain that I've been having a Jewish moment. Don't lots of Gentiles now and again? Julian Treslove does, big time, in The Finkler Question, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Howard Jacobsen. So emulous and obsessed does this walking midlife crisis become with his sophisticated London Jewish friends that he tries to become one of 'them', learning the etiquette of their culture and most recondite rituals of their religion. In doing so he displays neuroses straight from the script of a Woody Allen movie, only he's not funny - he's a creep.

Me, it's a periodic, dilettantish thing largely assuaged by a book or two. It used to be Philip Roth, but much as I admire his prolific wordcraft there are only so many accounts of life in post-war Newark leather glove factories that I can take (he cut a lonely figure talking to Kirsty Wark on BBC2's Late Review about the price he's paid for his phenomenal output). Latterly it's been lighter stuff like Michael Chabon's mini swashbuckler Gentlemen of the Road about two Judaic gentlemen-adventurers in the Dark Age back and beyond. Conan meets Kabbalah if you will.

Dean Road entrance: crying out for some TLC

Deane Road entrance: crying out for some TLC

Which is why earlier today I was stood in Kensington (the Liverpool one) by a granite headstone that had a carved pair of hands doing the Vulcan live-long-and-prosper thing. It was Deane Road, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in the city, and the symbol apparently comes from a blessing performed by priests based on a character in the Hebrew alphabet that stands for 'Almighty God'. Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy swiped it for Star Trek.

Both Deane Road and the synagogue belong to the city's Old Hebrew Congregation and featured among this year's venues in the annual round of Heritage Open Days. So did the Unity Theatre on Hope Place, originally the site of another, much smaller place of worship owned by the Liverpool New Hebrew Congregation, its only surviving remnants being some fine stained-glass windows on display. Old Congregation? New Congregation? All became clear eventually thanks to our tour guide at the cemetery, Saul Marks.

Like the synagogue I've only ever seen the outside - a crumbling Greek Revival archway bearing the legend Here the weary are at rest. Deane Road itself slopes down from its junction with Kensington/Prescot Road, arguably the beating heart of Liverpool, to Edge Lane Roadworks, which would give the chicane at Monza a run for its money. It still boasts a few handsome brick terraces and stuccoed villas.

Mind the knotweed: cemetery headstones

Mind the knotweed: cemetery headstones

The graveyard is on the same incline and creates a bit of an optical illusion by widening like a trapezoid from its entrance facing the Lidl carpark and McDonald's drive-thru to its far border. Saul says there is a row of 10 headstones right at the front and 33 at the very back, and overall there are around 800 adult burials here and up to 900 stillborns and infants mostly in a mass unmarked grave at the rear.

Opened in 1837, it's been derelict for a best part of a century after the last reserved plot was filled in 1929. Graffiti is rare despite frequent trespass by local youths and a spate of fly-tipping. The greatest adversary has been Japanese knotweed, an invasive species with a massive roots system universally regarded by gardening types as 'a bastard to clear'.

An heroic restoration project has been ongoing since the start of the millennium, with almost £500,000 awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in December 2010 to continue the work: removing excess foliage; repairing the boundary walls; restoring the entrance and gates; and re-erecting fallen headstones. By next spring it's hoped the cemetery can be re-consecrated, and pre-booked tours run on a regular basis.

This morning Saul, the project manager and cemetery keyholder, gave a wonderfully informed guided tour. "A small Jewish community briefly established itself in Liverpool in the 1750s, and then they left," he began. "We're not quite sure who they were or why they came and disappeared.

"Around the 1770s a new group arrived, mostly Ashkenazi Jews from northern Europe. They were skilled artisans like watchmakers and silversmiths, and in 1808 they founded Liverpool's first purpose-built synagogue at the top of Seel Street. They became so well-connected that they consulted Jesse Hartley, the famous Albert Dock architect, while looking for a new burial ground. And they found this plot of land which was at that time literally a 'fair field' [the name of the adjacent district].

'The people buried here were not the stereotypical 'peasant Jews' from Russia and Poland - impoverished tailors, butchers and blacksmiths with long beards and shabby clothes - a wave of whom arrived in Liverpool at the end of the 19th century. Instead these were wealthy and assimilated, many having been born here, and they contributed significantly to the city's development."

In Liverpool 800: Culture, Character & History John Belchem writes: 'By the mid-nineteenth century, a well-established Anglo-Jewish community of merchants, large shopkeepers and professional men, mainly of German stock, all of whom had acquired the refinements of English culture, amounted to the largest and most "aristocratic" Hebrew community outside London'.

This was the city's Old Hebrew Congregation, which upped sticks from Seel Street to Princes Road in 1874. By then the rival New Hebrew Congregation had been founded following a dispute over rights and privilege (basically newer members of the Old Congregation peeved that they weren't getting a say in how things were run). The splinter group moved to Hope Place and ultimately suburban Greenbank Drive, which closed as a synagogue three years ago.

Saul entreated us to imagine the scene 150 or so years ago: the horse-drawn carriage arriving along cobbled streets, the coffin unvarnished with simple rope handles, according to Jewish custom, and draped in a black cloth with an embroidered Star of David.

He talked us through some of the headstones, inscribed in both Hebrew and English: composer Abraham Saqui and music publisher Humphrey Hime; Jacob Prag, professor of Hebrew, and Sigismund Lewis, physician for the Cunard shipping line; Charles Mozley, first Jewish mayor of Liverpool (1863), and bullion merchant Jonas Reis who lost everything on the stock market and committed suicide in the North Western Hotel; clockmaker Moses Samuel whose daughter-in-law Harriet transformed his ailing business into high street jeweller H Samuel, and David Lewis who founded the Lewis's department store in 1856 and left behind a £125,000 fortune (around £80 million today).

The cemetery's star attraction was a domed mausoleum with Egyptian styling for Baroness Miriam de Menasce, a Liverpool lady who married into a fabulously wealthy Sephardi (Iberian-North African Jewish) family from Alexandria. In 1890, on her deathbed aged only 39, she asked to buried back home. In the here and now, 36 hours ago, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was stormed, and the wheels on the bus go round and round...

Princes Road's seriously breathtaking interior

Princes Road's seriously breathtaking interior

At Princes Road the gasps give way to murmurs of wonder and delight as we file inside the synagogue's empyrean interior and get our bearings. On either side are horseshoe arcades of gold-and-green columns made from cast-iron with delicately gilded capitals and a recurring palmette motif, and aisles with seats that face inwards.

Over our heads is an elegant 'tunnel vaulted' ceiling. In the foreground, the Bimah or reading platform presented by David Lewis in 1875. At the far (east) end, a giant horseshoe arch and second rose window above the gleaming Ark (containing the Torah or Old Testament scrolls) topped with deep blue domes and framed by tall candelabras and a set of beautiful lectern seats made by Naomi's own father when he was 91.

Golden Ark under horseshoe arch and rose window

Golden Ark under horseshoe arch and rose window

Individual stylistic elements: Moorish, Arab, Ottoman, Byzantine and Mogul. Collective genre: Orientalism, all the rage in late 19th century architecture and decorative arts and brought on by everything from the popularity of coffee houses, patterned carpets and Turkish baths with glazed tiles to sensuous portraits of Levantine floozies by travelling European artists and writers. It influenced the design of private gardens and interiors in stately homes (like the so-called Arab Hall at Cardiff Castle created for the Marquis of Bute) as well as the work of William Morris.

Original drawing of the synagogue with its minarets

Original drawing of the synagogue with its minarets

There are equally historic synagogues in London (Bevis Marks and New West End, the latter also designed by the Audsleys) and Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton, Ramsgate and Plymouth. What gives Princes Road the edge, they say - and more in common with the synagogues of Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Florence - is its sheer exoticism.

The Audsleys described their design as being 'with enough of the eastern style to render it suggestive and enough western severity to make it appropriate for a street building in an English town' - a place also described, in a contemporary report from the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor, as 'the last seaport of the Old World'. In other words they played a straightish bat with the exterior and took the Marrakesh Express inside. Far out.


"At Princes Road the gasps give way to murmurs of wonder and delight as we file inside the synagogue's empyrean interior and get our bearings"


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