[The workshop] was lovely and well run and had a gentle and friendly approach to bring people together, break the ice and get participants involved.

participant

 

At the beginning of 2019, we held a series of free drama workshops exploring the often hidden and unknown histories of Sephardi Jews in England. They were held in the Education Centre at Bevis Marks Synagogue, central London, the oldest synagogue in the UK. The workshops were open to all, and the people who came were a range of ages and backgrounds, with our youngest participant aged four and our eldest was in his 80s.

Our intentions for the workshops were:

 

  • To bring together a cross section of people of all ages and backgrounds
  • To challenge traditional narratives which have ignored Jewish lives in England from 1066
  • To reveal some of the lives and stories of Sephardi Jews arriving in London
  • To explore and learn this history in an accessible, practical and fun way
  • To generate imaginative responses to the history
  • To expand our current knowledge of Sephardi history
  • To listen to the histories of the participants and synagogue staff
  • To bring people into spaces they may have not visited before, or even known existed. We focused on Bevis Marks Synagogue and The Novo Cemetery
  • To tour the Synagogue and to tour the Cemetery
  • To promote future aspects of the project and engage with people who may be interested in its development

 

I managed to learn a lot without it feeling like a lecture or a bore.

participant

 

 

The workshops proved extremely popular with over 120 people attending across the three sessions. Most had never known about Sephardi history of Bevis Marks Synagogue. We expected 60 people and doubled our expectation.

 

Hiding and Secrecy Workshop
Photo: Yaron Lapid

Each workshop explored a different element of Sephardi history. After an initial warm up, the topic was introduced using images, slides, music, objects, quotes and snippets of text as stimuli. The participants were then encouraged to respond creatively through improvisation, creating images and scenes, using props and objects, and exploring and developing characters.

The first workshop examined the need for secrecy and hiding as Jews returned to England without official permission. The second workshop focused on creating stories about the lives and characters buried in Novo Cemetery.  The third was about creating a 3D human historical timeline of Sephardi Jewish history.

A Synagogue tour was presented by Maurice Bitton, the synagogue manager. Through his talk, visitors discovered a unique building where nearly all the internal fixtures – wood panelling, seats, chandeliers, Ark, Bimah  – are unchanged from the building’s 1701 inauguration.

 

Hiding and Secrecy Workshop
Photo: Yaron Lapid

We were overwhelmed with the success of the workshops, we learnt so much from experts and volunteers. An example was when attendees improvised how they would persuade Cromwell to set aside land for a Sephardi cemetery. The group came up with a huge variety of reasons, the responses were historical, emotive, imaginative, religious and personal.

 

[The best bit was] meeting such a range of amazing people with such fascinating stories and knowledge.

participant

 

I loved seeing children work with people who could have been their grandparents or great-grandparents. An unexpected bonus was the inter-generational interaction.


The mix of ethnicities and cultures among those taking part in these workshops was pleasing. There was an adult debate which revealed how the secret history of Jews coming to England in 1656 has resonances for all of us today

reflection from Julia Pascal

As a result of the enthusiasm shown by the participants, we are now looking to rerun these workshops in different synagogues and venues. If you are interested in hosting a workshop, please contact Del Taylor on education@lostjews.org.uk