Ray Kann

Interviewed by young members of Edgeware and Hendon Reform Synagogue

10 November 2019

Where Sephardim come from
I was born in England and I have two brothers. My mother was born in Amsterdam – a city to which many Jews went when they left Spain and Portugal. In 1482 it was decided by the King and Queen of Spain that everybody should be a Catholic. If you didn’t want to be a Catholic, you could leave or you could convert. And if you converted what was put after your name “ex cen,” meaning ‘new Catholic’. A lot of people left and went to the coast of Africa, like Morocco, Algiers, or to Turkey, which was part of the Ottoman Empire where they allowed Jews to worship and Christians to worship, although there were certain taxes and conditions that they had to observe. A lot of Jews went to Portugal, but seven years later, the King of Portugal wanted to marry the Princess of Spain, and the Princess of Spain said, ‘I am not going to come to your country if there is a Jew there.’ So, again, the Jews were going to be kicked out. But nothing much happened for a while until they asked the Pope if they could have an Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition
The Inquisition was not about Jewish people. The Inquisition was about Catholic people who are not following Catholic practices. So, the Jewish people who still lit candles on erev Shabbat, who still tried to keep Kosher, who still tried to celebrate the Jewish festivals like Purim and Hanukkah, Yom Kippur – they got pulled in by the Inquisition to make sure they were good Catholics. So, they had to pretend to be Catholic. But the Jewishness was passed down from generation to generation. A lot of Jewish people emigrated if they could, largely to Amsterdam and Hamburg, and they did a lot of trade along the European coast, at places like Antwerp or Hamburg. They bought timber in Hamburg and corn, and they sent it down to Spain. And Spain sent back wool.

One of my ancestors left Portugal and arrived in Amsterdam. I’m going back about 10 generations here. We know for certain that she was there in 1740, because they gave her alms. Alms is what you give to poor people who haven’t got any money, right? The Jews who’d come from Spain and Portugal operated a fund for people who were not very well-off and they looked after their own kind, like we do in this synagogue today.

So that is a very brief outline about how Sephardi came about. All came from Spain and Portugal originally. and they were thrown out.

Sephardi ancestors in Amsterdam
My maternal great-great-great-grandfather came over, supposedly with his sister. His wife was the daughter of other Sephardim, one from North Africa, from Rabat [Morocco], the daughter, and the son of a rabbi in Belgrade. There were lots of actions against Jewish people, raids and slaughter of Jewish people in various places at various times. When that happened, they ran away. And that happened in the late 1600s in the Balkan area, where Belgrade was. So, they came to Amsterdam because it was a good place for Jews to be. Everywhere else in Christendom, Jews were frowned upon, and they weren’t allowed to join a trade union or guild. They could only do very simple things to earn any money, so they were generally very, very poor.

Before the war, one person in 10 in Amsterdam was Jewish, and a lot of Yiddish or Hebrew words, a lot of Jewish expressions, left the Jewish community and became part of the everyday Dutch language that you hear on television and radio and see in the newspapers. For example, Amsterdam is known as mokel, makom – my place, right? And chutzpah…

The Sephardi community in Amsterdam were very proud because they had come from Spain. They liked what they used to eat in Spain, which were, guess what? Olives? Yes, and other things like that: pickled fruits and cucumbers. My mother told the story that every Friday morning, erev Shabbat, a man would come round and call out, ‘Sour tasting fruits! Sour tasting fruits,’ which meant olives, pickled cucumbers, and all these delicacies that originally came from Spain and that the Sephardim still ate and enjoyed.

Amsterdam’s ‘Portuguese Synagogue’
There is a Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam [known as the Portuguese Synagogue], which was built in about 1673. It’s a very tall building and it’s near the Dutch Jewish Historical Museum. The museum is not very far from the main road, and it is beautifully laid out. It’s not just chanukiah, mezuzahs and ritual objects. It’s about the people as well, and their position in society – what businesses they did, the scientists and the social reformers. And then you can get access to the synagogue, which is just like it was when it was built. It still has no electric lighting, it’s got candles. They lower down the candle holders, light the candles and put them back up again. There’s no heating and on the floor it’s just floorboards. But it’s very clever, what they’ve done: to keep it looking clean, they put sand on the floor, so as you walk along, your foot pushes the sand and it cleans the floorboards.

Three synagogues were amalgamated in the 1640s-50s to make this one synagogue. Now, inside of the synagogue has got a Bima[i]at one end, with chairs like ours has, and it’s got pews each side with, of course, because it’s an Orthodox synagogue, upstairs on the balcony this is the ladies, because ladies and gents don’t sit together, as in our synagogue. And on the side, they’ve got special boxes for the officials of the synagogue. They brought this custom from Spanish society: if a family was considered to be important or had a lot of money, they had their own little special seat at the side of the synagogue rather than sitting with the rest of the people on the wooden pews.

I’ve still got a couple of cousins in Amsterdam who survived. I’m going to see them next month. I just love Amsterdam as a city. I have been a couple of times to that synagogue, but not to pray, just to see. I have been to a beautiful new synagogue in the southern part of the city, which is the new liberal synagogue. The previous one was getting old and the council wanted to redevelop the area and they said, ‘If we do that, we’ll give you a new synagogue.’ So, they got a new synagogue there, about eight to 10 years ago.

Paternal family history
My father’s side of the family can be traced back to 1700, and again my great-great-great-great grandfather – I think he was a pedlar. He finished up in a German village and married a girl there. The family lived there until about 150 years ago, when people started working in factories in the bigger towns: the younger people left to earn more money in the towns because there wasn’t much to do in the countryside.

Then on Kristallnacht, in November 1938, my father was arrested. He was about as political as this machine here, had never been involved, never interested in politics, but because he was Jewish he was taken away with his brother to a concentration camp. But they got home at the end of January 1939, and they left, got out of Germany illegally, and then they came to this country.        

My father had got a visa for several of the South American countries to get out of Germany. He wasn’t allowed to come into England or France, because they didn’t want the Jews, but he could go to South America. So, he came here to catch his boat to South America, but he met my mother and, 10 days after they got married, the war broke out and that meant they couldn’t go. He was 30 then.

He had to go to court and show his identification papers. When he told his story, they said he could stay, but he had to report to a police station once a week, which was quite common.

Tracing Sephardi history
In about 570-odd BC, the Temple was destroyed by people from Babylon, and they took the Jews away as slaves. Several years later, the Jews were freed, but a lot of them stayed in Babylon, and that city became a kernel of Jewish knowledge, as important as Jerusalem. [What was Babylon is now Iraq], and the Jews stayed there until about 15-20 years ago when, purely for political reasons, they were thrown out. I have friends who come from there – members of this synagogue originally came from there. Jews have been there virtually forever, for 2,500 years, but they kicked them out. That often happens to Jewish people – for no reason, other than where they are, it’s comfortable for the people in power to have a scapegoat to throw them out.

The Jews never went back to Iraq, and there are not many on the North African coast. I don’t think any have gone back to Libya. There may be a few Jews in Egypt now because things have changed in the last 50 to 80 years. Jews often eventually go back to where they come from, when conditions are better and they are not being persecuted – like there are Jews back in Germany now, quite a few Jewish communities.

I went to Tunis over 50 years ago. We wanted to meet the Jewish community that lived there, in caves. We spent the night in a cave that they’d turned into a hotel, with beds and everything. But the Jewish man we met wasn’t interested in meeting us at all. He was very grumpy, to be polite about it, because all the other Jews had left and emigrated to Israel – the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of Sephardi Jews who lived there had been kicked out. They’d gone to Israel, and he was the only one left there. This happened in almost all the North African countries – it happened in Egypt in 1953.

The history of Jews in Israel
Way, way back, the Jews came out of Egypt and went to what was near enough Canaan. They lived there and then they got thrown out by the Babylonians, who made them slaves. A lot, lot later – about 70AD, about 600 years later – the Romans came and they threw them out as well. [Under the Romans], Jews weren’t allowed to be in Jerusalem. But after a while they started coming back and were allowed to stay there, but they were generally quite poor and there weren’t very many of them, because all the Jews had dispersed over North Africa, Europe, India and places like that.


[i] The Bima is an elevated platform near the Aron Hakodesh/holy ark [which houses the Torah scrolls] for Torah reading during prayer services.