Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Jews of Penzance

While I am on a Jewish history roll ...

I have loved Cornwall since I was a child, and Tevye and I have been talking seriously about eventually retiring there, probably to the town of Penzance (if you want to know why, take a look at the view in my blog header. Also, who could resist a place with a name meaning "Holy Headland"?). It is important to us that wherever we live there must be a synagogue within reasonable driving distance, so we did a bit of internet searching to check out the local Jewish community. We found that there is indeed a small but active community in Cornwall, but rather to our surprise we also discovered that Penzance itself has a Jewish history.

The Jewish community of Penzance dated back to the eighteenth century, attracted despite the town's remote location by the commercial life of its port. The community's heyday was the first half of the nineteenth century, and a synagogue was built in 1807. By the middle of the century membership was declining, and for some time the synagogue was kept viable only by the large family of the rabbi. It became increasingly difficult to form a minyan (the ten adult men necessary for a full service to take place), and often only scaled down services could be held. The last AGM and the last wedding both took place in 1892. For many years a single congregant - the son of the former rabbi - kept the synagogue open, praying there alone on the High Holy Days. He finally left in 1913 and the building was sold to the Plymouth Brethren. Today, all that is left as a physical reminder of the Jewish past of Penzance is its unusually well preserved Jewish cemetery.

Picture: Gravestone of Jacob James Hart (English Heritage)

A couple of nice snippets of information ... the Jews of Cornwall referred colloquially to London as Makom Lamed - the "L-place"! Also, a Jewish trader from Penzance with the wonderful name of Lemon Hart produced his own brand of rum, which is still available today. You can even buy it online. (Not that I would want to. Loathesome, vile tasting stuff!)

Source of information: JCR-UK

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