The Council of Christians and Jews is one of my favourite organisations in the UK. I am the Chairman of the Lincoln branch of CCJ. Recently the Leeds branch contacted the Lincoln branch to arrange a visit to Lincoln, to see some of the sights important to both Christians and Jews.
We agreed that a tour of the Lincoln Cathedral and the Jewish Heritage Trail in Lincoln would set the foundation for an educational and interesting visit. We included time for a bit of shopping in the Bailgate area, lunch and a stroll down part of Steep Hill.
Two of my committee members volunteered to help me host the Leeds group for the day. Rev’d Mike Mason took care of the logistics and Dorothy Moss was their guide for the Jewish Heritage Trail and the Cathedral, whilst I filled in throughout the day as greeter to welcome them at the coach and help them get from place to place.
As we gathered in front of Lincoln Cathedral, I gave them a brief history of the Jews of Lincoln, from the past to the present. It is important to note that the Jews of Lincoln lived a good life for a time, owning businesses and homes, and being part of mainstream Lincoln life until anti-Semitism set in. From that point onward, they were then living with persecution. In 1290, the Jews of England were expelled altogether. It would be several hundred years before Jews began to settle in Lincoln once again. I then brought the story full circle to today, in which the Jewish community has a good relationship with the Cathedral, as well as other religious groups, and is an active partner in Interfaith activities here in Lincoln. The Jews of Lincoln today are a small but active community.
We began our tour with a visit to the Bishop’s Palace, one of the most important buildings in England, as it was used to administer the “Super” diocese of Medieval Lincoln, which stretched from the Humber to the Thames – a large part of the country. Aaron of Lincoln, a wealthy Jewish banker, loaned the money to build the Bishop’s Palace, the Bishop’s residence in London and funded the rebuilding of Lincoln Cathedral after the earthquake of 1185. We walked to the south side of the Cathedral to see the Judgment Porch. The carvings at the Judgement Porch represent a figure of a defeated synagogue and a triumphant figure holding the Church. A pilgrim following this route would see triumphant Christian spiritual victory of church over synagogue.
As we approached the West Front of the Cathedral, we saw a Frieze The Bosom of Abraham showing Abraham as the gate keeper to Heaven. Towards the entrance to the cathedral is another frieze Expulsion of Adam & Eve with Adam and Cain tilling the ground and given seeds and perfume by G-d. The Cathedral is rich in Jewish associations. Links to the Jewish community are seen in artworks depicting Jews as well as stories about Jews and Jewish tradition. The 12th century were positive images but the 13th century were controversial with hostile images.
Walking through the cathedral we come to the Dean’s Eye – a large stained glass window with a scene of the Bishop of Lincoln, St. Hughes’ funeral, showing the Jews running alongside the coffin, weeping with grief. He was known to be a friend and protector of the Jews, personally intervening to save the Jews of Lincoln and North Hampton in 1190.
Another stained glass window has a row of Jewish stars – six-pointed stars which symbolized that there were Jewish communities. Another stained glass window depicts The Legend of Theophilus and The Legend of the Jews of Bourges contain both controversial and negative images
The Little Hugh Shrine in the Cathedral is part of the Blood Libels of England from the middle of the 13th century. A local boy, known as Little Hugh, was found dead near the Jewish community and the Jews were falsely blamed for his death. 18 Jews were executed by the King. 800+ years later, a new plaque put up over his tomb with a proper explanation of the incident and the fact that when his body was exhumed there was no damage to his body and that the Jews had nothing to do with his death.
The new plaque was dedicated in 2008 with a very moving service conducted in the cathedral near the tomb where the new plaque was unveiled. It was history in the making as the Dean, other clergy and members of the Cathedral, as well as the Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, a cantor from London and the Jewish Community of Lincoln all gathered together to share in this momentous event. The cantor chanted the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – for the 18 Jews that died needlessly. This was the first time in the history of the Cathedral this had ever been done, which was another great example of the amazing relationship between the Cathedral and the Jewish Community of Lincoln.
We left the cathedral and everyone had free time to have lunch at one of the many cafes in the Bailgate, and to wander around the shops before meeting up at Jews’ Court, so named for the centre of Jewish life in Lincoln in the 11th and 12th centuries. We gathered at Jews’ Court and went up to the room where the Jewish Community meets for Shabbat services twice a month. The president of the Lincolnshire Jewish Community gave us a brief history of the building itself, the oldest building in Europe that has been continually inhabited, and about the Jewish Community in Lincoln today.
The tour ended at The Collection, a museum in Lincoln, where we saw the two Jewish artifacts – an oil lamp which is one of only four known examples of Medieval Jewish ritual lamps in England, and a roof tile ornament, which is a caricature resembling a Jewish man, with a cap, nose and beard. This roof figure was a sign of wealth in those days, many centuries ago.
As the coach arrived to collect the group for the journey back to Leeds, it was time to say goodbye. I really enjoyed spending the day with them. They are a wonderful group of people and it was our pleasure to have them visit us in Lincoln. They really enjoyed the day and were thrilled to walk the Jewish Heritage Trail, following in the footsteps of those who called Lincoln home, more than 800 years ago.