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Mystery surrounds mistake-filled 300-year-old prayer book found in UK

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A British academic has discovered a rare, handwritten translation of a siddur, or prayer book, in a collection in a Manchester library — and clues in the volume point to a little-known presence of Jews in 17th-century England.

In a presentation recently at the Rylands Library, Dr. Aron Sterk revealed the results of nearly a year and a half of research since he undertook cataloging one Jewish community leader’s 19th-20th century manuscript and book collection in February 2015.

 

Sterk’s prize discovery is a double puzzle. It is an English translation of a Spanish version of the Hebrew siddur. And, because of what it doesnot contain, he believes that it was almost certainly used by a woman as her daily prayer book — and that woman may even have been a convert to Judaism.

Sterk, who earned a doctorate in Jewish studies at Manchester University and is now a researcher at the University of Lincoln, was going through papers at Manchester University’s John Rylands Library. The neo-Gothic building, which opened to the public in 1900, holds a world-class collection, ranging from medieval Christian manuscripts to the renowned Rylands Haggadah, believed to have been written in mid-14th century Catalonia.

Sterk’s special interest is in the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, emigrants from Amsterdam who formed the earliest Sephardi congregations in England after Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews in 1656. But some academics believe there is evidence that before 1655 there was an established Jewish community in London — Spanish-speaking merchants who traded publicly but kept their religion private.

In 1954 the Rylands Library acquired a number of manuscripts and printed books from the collection of Rabbi Doctor Moses Gaster (1856-1939). Gaster served as haham(presiding rabbi) of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Great Britain from 1887 to 1919.

Rabbi Doctor Moses Gaster was the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Great Britain from 1887-1919. (Wikimedia commons)

Rabbi Doctor Moses Gaster was the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Great Britain from 1887-1919. (Wikimedia commons)

And it was in the Gaster collection that Sterk found a curiosity — “a translation of a translation.”

As he explained, “in the mid-1550s, in Ferrara, Italy, those Marrano Jews who had fled Spain after the Inquisition were permitted, by the Duke of Ferrara, to refer to Judaism and live openly as Jews.”

What became known as the Ferrara Bible, in Spanish, was printed at the time, and, between 1552 and 1556, so were a Spanish translation of the siddur and a second volume for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The Marrano Jews had largely lost their comprehension of Hebrew and thus needed prayers in Ladino Spanish. And for the next 200 years or so, this Spanish translation was regularly reprinted for the use of Sephardi Jews in Europe.

“This translation,” says Sterk, “was printed in dozens of varying editions, mostly produced in Amsterdam. In fact the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were so attached to this translation that its Spanish prayers took on a holiness second only to the Hebrew.”

“Apart from an unauthorized edition printed by one Joseph Messias in 1721 that was swiftly suppressed by [Bevis Marks] synagogue [only one copy now remains in Oxford], an edition of the siddur was not printed in England till 1740, that of HahamIsaac Nieto,” he said. (The Messias edition was published without permission of the congregation’s elders.) “An unauthorized English translation appeared in 1771 in London and a translation of the Yom Kippur prayer book was printed in New York in 1766, but the first authorized translation into English did not appear until 1836.”

Dr. Aron Sterk discovered the prayer book in the Rylands Library in Manchester. (Courtesy)

Dr. Aron Sterk discovered the prayer book in the Rylands Library in Manchester. (Courtesy)

So what had Sterk found in the Rylands collection? It is an English translation of the Spanish version of the siddur, painstakingly hand-written and copied — but almost certainly, because it is full of mistakes — by someone who was not Jewish.

He believes that the Rylands English siddur is one of only four copies of a translation from the Spanish version, probably printed between 1700-1734.

“Two of these copies are no longer available. One known to exist in the late 19th century has completely vanished, the second is in the hands of a private collector,” he said.

A third copy was only identified (also by Sterk) earlier this year in the records of Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, kept in the London Metropolitan Archives.

The siddur, says Sterk, “is very English-looking and beautifully bound. It has a beautiful gilt black Morocco leather binding, with gilded edges to the pages, a green silk page-marker and lovely crimson and gold foil ‘brocade’ endpapers with an embossed floral design. The book has been written by hand by a professional penman in an italic hand with gothic titles.”

But there are mistakes.

 

“Unfortunately the penman was not Jewish and unfamiliar with what he was writing,” Sterk says. “He often makes mistakes; at one point he writes ‘hannukak’ for hannukah, on the opposite page to one where he has it right!”

The first page of the English translation signed by Moses Gaster. (Courtesy)

The first page of the English translation signed by Moses Gaster. (Courtesy)

The writing is typical of the period, using the letter “f” instead of “s” so that the word “blessed” appears as “blefsed.” But Sterk says the book “was obviously meant as a precious object and has evidently been much used.”

Its most distinctive feature, however, is what is omitted: It has no preparations for prayer, no blessings for Tallit (prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries), no communal prayers or services like havdala, kiddush, birkat hamazon etc. And, most tellingly, there is no kaddish (mourner’s prayer) or other of the devarim shebikdusha, the sections of the service that require a quorum of ten Jewish men. According to Sterk, the book only makes sense if it was intended for the use of a woman.

However, while the book itself is dateable to the early 18th century, Sterk believes that the translation is based on a much older edition of the Spanish prayer book, maybe even dating back to shortly after the first Amsterdam edition in 1612.

“It has variations in the translation which could only have come from the first Spanish Siddur,” he says.

There were certainly enough Jews living in England before Cromwell’s time to warrant having an English translation of the siddur available. Sterk noted that in 1661 a Jewish informer to the Inquisition in Madrid, calling himself Francisco Domingo de Guzman, gave the names of some 5,000 Jews living in northern Europe in the previous decade. They included a list of those in London.

“Among the London names are Yda Montagu and Juana (Joan?) Arri, both described as ‘inglesa de nación’ – ‘of the English nation,’” he says.

Ten years earlier, in 1641, the diarist John Evelyn visited Leiden, in the Netherlands, where he encountered a “Burgundian Jew” who had “translated books of devotion for his apostate Kentish wife.’”

A commemoration of British Jewish men and women who served in the First World War, held by We Were There Too, at Bevis Marks Synagogue. (Blake Ezra)

Interior, Bevis Marks Synagogue, taken from gallery. (Blake Ezra)

Whether the translation behind the texts of the Bevis Marks and the Rylands copies were indeed done by the Burgundian Jew for his Kentish wife, and whether her name might have been Ida or Joan are matters of speculation, says Sterk.

“But what is not in doubt is that these two books show that a Jewish woman was using an English translation of the siddur in the early years of the 18th century — if not even before the readmission of the Jews to England — at least 30 to 40 years before what is usually thought to be the first English translation of the complete synagogue liturgy,” says Sterk.

It is a pleasing, twisting tale of detective work and informed speculation. The Bevis Marks and Rylands siddurim are likely to remain where they are, but the third copy, the one that was in the hands of a private collector, was sold recently at Christie’s in New York — for $40,000.

Surely now the hunt must be on for the missing fourth copy, which vanished in the 19th century.