Eight centuries after the pogrom, pride flickers again in York’s Jewish community

13 December 2015
The Guardian / Observer

Liberal Judaism has given the city’s Jews a chance to uphold their faith while accepting the realities of modern life.

In March 1190, the entire Jewish community of York – about 150 people – barricaded themselves inside the castle as antisemitic riots raged outside. The mob, encouraged by the crusader fervour of the new king, Richard I – and some of them motivated by an opportunity to wipe out their debts – bayed for blood.

Faced with death at the hands of the marauders or forced baptism, most of the Jews inside the castle chose suicide. In an echo of the first-century siege of Masada, the mountain-top fortress beside the Dead Sea in Israel, the men killed their wives and children before setting fire to the wooden keep. There were no survivors.

The massacre of the York Jews is among the most notorious of countless pogroms in the bloody history of the Jewish people and is commemorated in a kinah, or lamentation, recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. For eight centuries, the city of York has had dark connotations for Jews all over the world.

So last week’s lighting of a candle by three-year-old Tzofiya Stefanov-King in York’s magnificent Guildhall represented an extraordinary and symbolic moment for the fledgling Jewish community that is steadily putting down roots in the city.

“It’s a source of immense pride. It’s saying we’re here; we exist,” said Yasmin Stefanov-King, Tzofiya’s mother, as the community gathered to celebrate the third day of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, in the presence of York’s lord mayor and other civic leaders.

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