York is an English cathedral city and the principal city in the north of England during the Middle Ages. Jewish capitalists settled there in the middle of the 12th century and attained considerable prosperity. The leaders of the community were Benedict, Josce, noted for his patronage of scholars, and the tosafist Yom Tov of Joigny. Benedict and Josce represented the York Jews in the deputation that waited on Richard I at his coronation in September 1189. In the ensuing riots, Benedict was seriously wounded and died of his injuries on his homeward journey.
The following March anti-Jewish rioting broke out in York, and the Jews, headed by Josce, were allowed by the sheriff to take refuge in the royal castle known as Clifford’s Tower. Suspecting the latter’s intentions, they later excluded him, were besieged by the mob, and as many as 150 committed mass suicide rather than submit (Shabbat ha-Gadol, March 16/17, 1190). The event was recorded in a Hebrew account written by Ephraim of Bonn, The victims included Josce, R. Yom Tov, and the tosafist Elijah of York. A poignant elegy on the massacre was composed by Joseph b. Asher of Chartres.
Following the pogrom, a myth was perpetuated that Jews were forbidden to live in the city. “In Jewish communities, you will still find plenty of people who think Jews can’t live in York,” said Ben Rich, co-founder of the Liberal Jewish Community.
A thriving community was reestablished early in the 13th century though it never regained its former importance.
Researchers announced in 2023 that they discovered the location of the city’s first synagogue. It was behind Aaron of York’s house. Aaron, along with his father-in-law Leo Episcopus, were representatives of the Jewish community of England, and Aaron was the richest man in the country in the 1230s and 1240s.
The most important Anglo-Jewish magnate of the reign of Henry III, Aaron of York, archpresbyter of the Jews of England (1236–43), was the son of the Josce mentioned above. The community’s cemetery, originally shared with those of Lincoln and Northampton, was at a place still known as Jewbury.
York remained a Jewish center until the expulsion of 1290 when the financial magnate Bonamie of York was given safe conduct out of the city and was permitted to settle in Paris. A few Eastern European Jews settled in York at the end of the 19th century, and a small congregation has existed since 1892.
In 1968, it numbered 45 out of a total population of 106,010, while the 2001 British census found 191 declared Jews by religion. There is an Orthodox congregation. A plan in 2002 by the local council to build a shopping mall adjacent to Clifford’s Tower was opposed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the local community.
The Liberal Jewish Community has approximately 100 members and, in 2023, for the first time since the massacre 800 years earlier, a rabbi took up residence in the city. Elisheva Salamo came from the United States and said, “Helping to rebuild what was once one of England’s most vibrant Jewish communities is an honor and a privilege.”
Davies, in: Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, 3 (1875), 147–97; J. Jacobs, Jews of Angevin England (1893); A.M. Habermann, Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Zarefat (1945), 127, 152–54; Roth, in: JHSET, 16 (1952), 213–20; Birnbaum, ibid. 19 (1960), 199–205; M. Adler, ibid., 13 (1936), 113–55 (= Jews of Medieval England (1937), 127–73); E. Brunskill, ibid., 20 (1959–61), 239–46. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R.B. Dobson, Clifford’s Tower and the Jews of Medieval York (1995); idem, The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190 (1974).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
The 1190 Massacre, York Museum Trust Project.
Harriet Sherwood, “‘Our doors are open’: York gets its first resident rabbi in more than 800 years,” The Guardian, (August 3, 2023).
“Research sheds new light on York’s thriving medieval Jewish Community,” University of York, (August 21, 2023).