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Tunnelling into hidden history of Oxford's Jews
Buy this photo » Pam Manix, a member of the Oxford Jewish Heritage committee, pictured with an original Jewish medieval door, which led to the underground tunnels connecting homes in the Jewish quarter
IMPORTANT decisions about our city’s future are made at Oxford Town Hall.
But many people may not realise that beneath its floors lies a fascinating glimpse into our past.
In fact Oxford has the most well-documented medieval Jewish community in the world.
And now that history has been revealed in an exhibition at the Town Hall.
The free exhibition opened yesterday to teenagers from the Oxford Jewish community and was officially launched by Lord Mayor Dee Sinclair.
It will open to the public today and give people the chance to discover, for the first time, centuries-old artefacts such as an ornate base for a cross, carved by Jews which they were forced to carry through the streets as punishment for interrupting a Christian procession.
The show has been curated by the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee – set up by the Oxford Jewish Congregation in 2006 – and is part of an effort to unlock the “hidden history” of the Jews in the city.
Pam Manix, a member of the Oxford Jewish Heritage committee and medieval historian, said: “We are lucky that Oxford has the best-documented medieval Jewish community in the world.” Michael Ward, another member, added: “This is the culmination of quite a lot of time and effort on our part.
“It is not the first thing we have achieved. For example we unveiled an information board about the medieval Jewish community in the Norma underground crypt at the Oxford Castle in October 2010.
“But this is another step towards making this hidden history better known to the people of Oxford, not just Jews but everyone.
“Oxford is extraordinary in the amount of information we have because the university has preserved so much of the historical evidence.
“This means we have a unique memory of those medieval Jews.”
This includes a medieval doorway that once led to a vast array of underground tunnels connecting homes in the Jewish quarter – in what is now St Aldate’s.
And for the first time people will be able to go on a virtual tour of the medieval vaulted cellar belonging to one of five Jewish houses that stood directly beneath the site of the modern-day Town Hall – the original cellar still exists and tours can be arranged via the Museum of Oxford.
President of the Oxford Jewish Congregation Jon Rowland said: “I think it’s really interesting.
“The heart of the Oxford Jewish Heritage project is to raise the profile of the history of the Jews in Oxford from the earliest records through to modern day community activities.
“The Jews played a very important role in Oxford until they were expelled from the city in 1290.
“They returned to England in 1665 and apart from that period when they were expelled, Oxford has flourished from their input.”
Elise Benjamin, who was Oxford’s first Jewish Lord Mayor in 2011, said: “I think it’s great that it’s at the Town Hall, because the hall is built on the old Jewish quarter. It’s very much part of the physical history of the city.
“I think it will highlight yet another element of Oxford’s history. At the moment most people think of the University and what’s nice is when we find out other interesting things about where we live.”
Royal protection created safe haven for Jewish community
WILLIAM the Conqueror brought the Jews to England from France to help boost trade between his new kingdom and his continental territories.
The Jews migrated up the River Thames to Oxford from around 1080 and established a significant and thriving community in the town.
The medieval Jewish quarter was situated in today’s St Aldate’s, then called the Great Jewry.
Beneath the houses of the quarter, where now Santander bank, Oxford Town Hall and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau are located, a network of tunnels connected vaulted basements of all the Jewish houses.
But like all of the basement doorways in the street it was bricked up in the 1930s.
The Jewish cemetery was located under the modern Rose Garden in front of Oxford Botanic Garden, and the medieval synagogue was near the northern tower of Christ Church.
Members of the Jewish community played an important part in the intellectual, social and financial life of the city.
As non-Christians, Jews were not subjects of the realm but were wards of the Crown and therefore under royal protection.
The King could turn to the Jews as his own private source of income and would tax them heavily for certain projects such as funding wars.
Mrs Manix said that despite the persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe, Oxford was a safe haven because of the city’s strong Royal connection.
She explained: “The Jews were the wards of the King, so they would have been under the protection of the sheriff at the Oxford Castle. But also, kings such as Edward I would have regularly visited Woodstock which was a favourite hunting lodge, and Beaumont Palace behind the modern-day Ashmolean.
“Members of the Jewish community played an important part in the life of the city.”