Marcus Roberts


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However, the building of the new synagogue was if anything, not the confident expression of a flourishing community, perhaps more of a swan song. The community was in decline, a decline that had perhaps been signalled as early as 1820, by leading members of the departing to the Island of St Helenas. In 1845 when the original synagogue was destroyed, the community had in fact declined to only 12 to 14 members.

By the 1830s the Canterbury Jews mostly traded and lived around the Westgate, into St Peter's Street and as far as Kings Bridge, as well as the Northgate of the city, with the majority of the businesses being listed in the Northgate Street suburb.

However a fascinating glimpse is provided into the declining years of the community by a local non-Jew, who by his own account acted as the shammus or caretaker of the community. J.G.B. Stone wrote in the Kentish Gazette in 1955, that as a young man he as served his apprenticeship of five years at a Canterbury Jewish Tailors, Lazarus and Co. at 36 High Street. The Lazarus family were in later years, one of the leading Canterbury Jewish families - the site of their shop in later years was 36 High Street. He described how the business was always closed over the Jewish Sabbath. He also related that on working days the head of the company would arrive in the morning and go straight to his board in the cutting room, put on his tefilin, and set to cutting out a coat while he recited his prayers.

Stone claims in an account (which is unfortunately coloured by prejudice) that in the last two years of his apprenticeship he 'acted as the Shammus [caretaker] of the synagogue, the only Goy that ever held the office.' He would be present in the synagogue, or its grounds, during services and relates that during the services 'there was a complete absence of decorum. The women in the gallery chatted among themselves, and there was much noisy movement on the floor by the men. Altogether it had more the air of a social reception than the silence and solemnity of a place of worship.' Ce ne plus pas la change?

During services some men had to on occasion share their tallit (prayer shawl) - Stone implies on account of poverty. On one occasion he had to get 'three Schnorrors' (Jewish beggars) who had come in the synagogue that morning from the road to share one tallit. There was very little tallit to go round, resulting in one of the men shouting at the others 'D'ye want all the ---- Tollus!', omitting the expletive, since he was in the house of God.

Of real historical interest is the fact that he describes the use of the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath provided for the women, that was built in the grounds of the synagogue and which was equipped with a copper, a bath, and a pump. The Shammus would have to arrange for 'a woman to fill the copper and light the fire, and remain in attendance'. It is known from the Chief Rabbis' survey of 1845, that before the mikveh was built, the Canterbury Jewish women used the public baths for mikveh. In 1838 there were two public baths listed in the town, one set of established baths at 60 Burgate, as well as the apparently newer George Baths on the Parade.

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