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Book Notes: Jews in Bristol, Judith Samuel

Malcolm Weisman

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jews in Bristol, Judith Samuel (Redcliffe, 1998) 242 pp. ?17.95. Judith Samuel is to be congratulated on having produced a remarkable and well-researched volume on the history of the Jewish community in Bristol from the Middle Ages to the present day. To produce such an account of life in a small provincial community needs a special sensitivity if a monotonous reeling off of dates, facts and names is to be avoided. Judith Samuel has done that with verve and enthusiasm. She has been able to bring the story to life because she knows small communities from the inside rather than from a distant base in the heart of a larger mainstream Jewish community. As a result of her husband's work, Judith has spent much of her life not only as a member of the Bristol community, but also in Chatham, another old congregation possessed of a beau? tiful Victorian synagogue. The author sets the scene by giving a brief yet comprehensive history of pre-expulsion Anglo-Jewry, before turning to a detailed history of Bristol Jewry during the same period. Of particular interest to readers will be her account of Anglo-Jewish history between 1492 and 1697, especially in relation to Bristol. As a major port, the city during that period was well known to many openly practising as well as Crypto-Jews. After the formal re-admission of Jews the city became home to a small but active congregation which existed well before 1753. Synagogues existed from 1756 onwards and the first minister was appointed in 1765. The first wedding took place in 1786. Though the community was small, its members were active in the business life of the city and the book gives fascinating information on this, including reproductions of many of the advertisements published by Jewish businesses. Even with the decline of Bristol as a major sea-port, the community made significant contributions to local business and the political scene. The history describes the value of Polack's House at Clifton College, founded by the remarkable Revd Joshua Polack, several of whose descendants succeeded him as house-master. It happily flourishes to this day. The more recently estab? lished Progressive congregation is included, although the recent establishment of a large Bnai Brith Hillel House for Jewish students at Bristol University is perhaps too new for consideration. The volume is well illustrated with photographs, sketches and maps. The appendices contain vital information and lists of names of ministers and honor? ary officers of the synagogue. Elsewhere, especially in the early history, names 331</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes and even addresses are fully recorded of local Jewish residents. Of particular value is the detailed record of gravestones in the Barton Road Burial Ground. The list of ministers is interesting. Some served the community for a length of time, such as the first, Isaac Collish or Zevi Hirsch Kalisch, who served from 1765 to 1785. The last full-time minister, until the present part-time student chaplain, Hillel Simon, was the Revd Max M?ddel who served from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. Two distinguished short-term incumbents were the Revd Arthur Barnett, who served from 1920 to 1924 and later went to the Western Synagogue in London, and Rabbi Harris Swift who served from 1925 to 1934. What of the future? Judith Samuel ends her book on an optimistic note. Recent local Jewish cultural developments through the DAVAR institute, and participation in West Country community gatherings called West Quests organ? ized by myself have ensured that Bristol remains a viable if small community. Activities that take place within the community, at Polack's House and the Uni? versity Jewish Society could put many larger congregations to shame. The book, which details past successes and points the way to an equally posit? ive future, is also a good read. Malcolm Weisman OBE</page></plain_text>