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Benny Greenberg's Reminiscences

Dictated at home 23rd February 2000

Berashis - In the beginning
The Jews living in England were uprooted and expelled by King Edward the First in 1290. All of their worldly goods were confiscated for the benefit of the King.

The Drake Connection.
The next mention of Jews in the South West of England was from the log of Sir Francis Drake when he sailed around the world. His quartermaster and navigator was Moses the Jew, who was from the Barbican, Plymouth.

When the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell came to power, Menasah Ben Israel petitioned him to allow the Jews to return to England. Nothing was finalised but after the death of Cromwell, the Jews were allowed to come to England.

In the Privy Council notes three pages are torn out. The only people who were against Jews coming here were the London merchants. The Jews had a great monopoly of trading on the European Continent centred on Amsterdam, a stronghold of Continental Jewry.

During the reign of Queen Anne and William of Orange right up to the Georges, the Jews came over to England and officially there was no law to repeal to tell them that they were not welcome here, as there was in the Petty Kingdoms of Germany, Poland and countries like that.

Under the Stuarts, King Charles the Second was exiled after his father was executed and while he lived on the Continent he was kept by money from the Jews. When in 1660 Charles returned to the throne of England he was friendly toward the Jews. After all, they had kept him alive. Jews were entering England at this time and by the year 1700 there were about 7000 Jews living in this country. The numbers being too large to prosper in London alone, they fanned out into the provinces with their packs on their backs. They were tradesmen, craftsmen, silversmiths and opticians. They settled where they found work and when there were sufficient numbers, they organised Services in their homes.

Those that went travelling stayed at an inn and they would have a locked cupboard where they kept their dishes and things like that, but they managed to come back to towns such as Plymouth and Exeter for Friday nights and Festivals.

John Jacob Sherenbeck and the Hoe Cemetery
John Sherenbeck was first heard of in 1734 at the assizes in Taunton where he was found guilty of Criminal Conversation with the wife of Lazarus Chadwick. He was fined £20 and imprisoned for two years. On release from prison he became a prominent business man and with his wife was a generous benefactor to the Synagogue. He died between 1779 and 1782.

John Joseph Sherenbeck came from Sherenbeck in Germany and was the Leader of the Plymouth Congregation in 1745. He lived in what to-day is East Stonehouse. It was separated from Plymouth by what is now known as Union Street. The area was at that time a nest of Highwaymen and undesirables.

If a Jewish person died, the nearest suitable cemetery was in London, which was a three weeks trip by road. You could travel by sea but many ships foundered and the body may not get there at all. Sherenbeck’s wife was a devout Jewish woman and she had a Summer House on the Hoe with a garden. She let a Jewish person be buried in her garden. Even to-day, if you get permission, you can bury a body in your garden, just like the body of Princess Diana buried in the grounds of Althorpe House.

It is only in recent years through the efforts of our committee and a small team of outside volunteers that the Hoe cemetery is now restored to a tidy and safe condition where visitors can be welcomed by appointment. At the time of the 1750s, the Jews in Plymouth were using a well in St. Katherine's Lane for ritual washing purposes. They paid five shillings per annum for the use of the land and the well. That was the chosen site for the Synagogue.

The Synagogue
By 1759 there were enough people in Plymouth for the community to have a permanent place of worship. The cost of building the Synagogue was £300. A mortgage loan was taken out for £500 that covered the cost of the building and sundry expenses and the construction of the Holy Ark. The Ark cost £50-10s and was built in the Baroque style. They engaged architects and other professionals and in 1762 the Synagogue was completed and consecrated to the Glory of G-d and the Holy Congregation of Plymouth.

Exeter Synagogue followed just two years after Plymouth, built as Plymouth in Georgian style it is plain with a simple interior compared to that of Plymouth.

To-day these are the only two examples of Georgian Synagogues in the whole of the English speaking world. And they are only some 40 miles apart.

In 1834 the City of Plymouth offered the congregation the freehold of the land for the sum of one hundred guineas. There was no argument about taking it.

Whether they paid by cheque or took golden guineas into the treasury we do not know. We need an archivist to look through our old papers. The Synagogue has a small Sefer Torah that is a Sephardi Sefer which dated back to about 1720 and was written in Venice.

The Mikveh
The Plymouth Synagogue had a Mikveh that was constructed along with the vestry building about thirteen years later. It was built on the site of the spring used for several years previously for ritual washing and it utilised the same spring water.

Henry Hart
Henry Hart was a Plymouth man who founded the Lemon Hart Rum. This Rum was supplied to the Royal Navy. It was the custom to give a daily tot of Rum to all seamen, a valuable person indeed. In 1797 Mrs Henry Hart was one of the Trustees of the Plymouth Synagogue.

The Community
Plymouth has always been a supporter of the Chief Rabbi’s Office, and they have always been staunch supporters of the Chief Rabbi. London Jewry was well established by this time and it is believed that Tivelin Schiff who had spent some time in Plymouth was indeed the Rabbi for Ashkenazim for the whole of England.

Gradually the congregation increased. Beside immigrants, there were now native born people, Plymothians whose mother tongue was English.

The Joseph Family
Later there was a family in Plymouth named Joseph and also a Joseph family living in Falmouth. The families amalgamated and became THE Joseph family. They were the leading lights of the Plymouth congregation. By 1800/1805 the congregation was well established.

They were generous benefactors of the Congregation. They presented to the congregation a set of Rimonim (Silver Bells) of which there were only about six pairs produced. Mr Joseph died a bachelor.

Isador Berman ben Joshua Levi, the righteous priest from the Holy Congregation died on Yom Kippur on the island of Madeira in 1805. His mother, in gratitude, had him buried on Plymouth Hoe. There was no separate place for Kohanim. The congregation has a silver bowl and jug given by his family for the loving kindness of this congregation towards her son. This bowl is still in regular use.

The Synagogue still uses the original Kiddush Cup given by the Joseph family in 1783. This family gave quite a lot of silver to the Congregation.

The Rothschild Connection
Joseph’s mother was Mrs Levy and born as a Cohen. Her great claim to fame was that she was the mother-in-law of Nathan Rothschild. She lived in London.

The Emdon Family
The Emdon family came over from Amsterdam. They married into nearly every prominent Jewish family in this country. There are now just two descendants alive with name Emdon.

Gifts The Congregation received many gifts of silver and other artefacts. Some of them are still with us and some have been lost.

Plymouth Jews have always been noted for their charitable work. Going back a little, the Nathan family were generous benefactors to the Congregation. Jacob Nathan left a magnificent sum to the congregation and his brother Nathaniel also established a trust to help support the Congregation. These trusts are no longer in existence.

In 1851 Rabbi Mayer Stadhagen, who was a minister here, wrote out a Pinchus, which is still in existence and lists all the people who had died and are buried in the old cemetery on the Hoe. Changes of names by Plymouth families are difficult to trace as our Pinchus until recently gave only the Hebrew Names. Now English names are included.

The Mrs Simpson connection
In the middle of the nineteenth century there was a notable family called Solomons living in Plymouth. They emigrated to many places. One branch of the family emigrated to America and they had a son called Edward. They had changed their name from Solomon to Simpson. Edward married a Miss Worfield who later divorced him and became the wife of Edward the Eighth, causing Edward’s abdication from the British throne for true love. That happened in 1938. It shows the continuity of the Plymouth Hebrew Ccongregation.

The Devonport Congregation
There was a smaller Congregation in Devonport who always said “We are the Devonport Jews” and considered themselves to be a cut above the Plymouth Jews.

They had a small Synagogue that was blitzed in the early years of the war. The Mesomim Box that we use in Plymouth came from the Devonport Synagogue and carries an inscription giving a date. The Devonport Synagogue was created for the convenience of the very Orthodox people who found the Plymouth Synagogue too far to walk to on the Shabbat. It is about two miles distant. There was no burial society in Devonport, therefore, the Devonport Jews needed to belong to the Plymouth Congregation. Plymouth acted then as the central point for the Jews of Devon and Cornwall, much as it does to-day.

Baron Roborough
There was a man called Fernando Lopez who came from Jamaica and was a wealthy man. He wanted to be an English Gentleman but the law had not been changed and as a Jew he was not allowed to own land. He got himself Baptised and gave all of his Jewish things to the Emdon family. Amongst the items was this little Sefer Torah scroll and they gave it to the Shul and it is still in the Ark. It is used now as a showpiece when I give lectures as due to some faded writing it is not suitable for religious use.

Fernando Lopez with his good deeds and having been baptised was made a Baronet and with more good deeds he was raised to the nobility and was named Baron Roborough and he resided at Maristow House just outside Plymouth. The Lopez Family is still in existence. He donated a ward to the Greenbank Hospital as the Lopez Ward. However when this hospital was transferred to new premises in Derriford his name was lost.

The early Jews in Plymouth were mainly engaged in naval practice with such trades as tailoring and spirits. Henry Hart was a Plymouth man, who founded the Lemon Hart Rum. This Rum was supplied to the Royal Navy. It was the custom to give a daily tot of Rum to all seamen, a valuable person indeed.

Jamaica Rum is still supplied to this day by Lemon Hart. In 1797 Mrs Henry Hart was one of the Trustees of the Plymouth Synagogue.

A.V. Alexander - Bishop of Jerusalem
In about 1840, there was a Minister here named A V Alexander, who was the second Reader of the Congregation and also the Shochet (slaughter man). He was so engrossed in forbidden readings that he was converted to Christianity on Easter Sunday sometime in the 1840s. His father-in-law was called Kaufman and he lies in the Old Cemetery. His tombstone is one of the few that is inscribed in English. A V Alexander ended up as the first Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. He died at the age of fifty about 1860, and was buried just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, possibly in St Georges Cathedral.

Synagogue Windows
Mr Jack B Goodman donated one Window in the Shul, dedicated to the memory of his mother. The Lazarus family, related to the Cohen family gave the Shabbat window. Another window was donated by the Brock family. Hetty Roseman gave the window on the stairs.

Longest Link
Sonny Gordon is a Grandson of Israel Roseman, one of the Devonport Rosemans. He until recent years ran a Greengrocery business in the Pannier Market assisted by me for many years. His late wife Rosa ran a Ladies Fashion business. Sonny Gordon has the longest link going back to his grandparents who were married in the Plymouth Synagogue.

Modern Plymouth
The Fredman family, who were Devonport people, also produced a Mayor. Myer Fredman became Mayor of Devonport about 1928 and but for his untimely death, he would surely have been made Lord Mayor of Plymouth.

He used to walk to the Synagogue on a Shabbat morning through the Halfpenny gate, a toll bridge, and left his coin the day before so as not to break the Shabbat. His grandson took the name of Fredman to incorporate the family name and he served in military intelligence in Gibraltar, he attended the Plymouth Shul a couple of years ago and has since passed away.

Prominent families during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century were the Rosemans the Fredmans and the Cohens. They were mostly property developers, becoming the Fredco Estates. The windows in the Synagogue either side of the Ark were presented by the Roseman and the Fredman Families. George and Minnie Lazarus presented a window in the Shul.

Noted antiquarians were Rose and Solly Owen descended from the Devonport Fredman family.

Ashe Fredman Lincoln
There was a Naval Captain called Ashe Fredman Lincoln, a legend in his lifetime. He lived in Gilbert Terrace, Devonport. His grandmother lived in Acre Place Devonport. He served in the intelligence arm of the Royal Navy in Gibraltar during the last war and he was involved in the case of’ “The Spy That Wasn’t”.

He was noted for travelling the Rock in his Rolls Royce. He was a member of the Inner Temple of the London Law Courts and he was Deputy Judge at the Plymouth Crown Court. He was dismissed from this post when he was found guilty of carrying a revolver (for his protection) and fined £20. He went on to help found the Israeli Navy.

Contract Bridge
In 2001, Walsols Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave was recently destroyed by fire causing Solly Solomons to retire but his son Warner continues to trade in Curtains and Loose Covers.

Warner Solomons partnered by his wife is a formidable Bridge player. This follows the local tradition, the late Colonel Telfer was a noted expert and owned and ran the prestigious Plymouth Bridge Club. The late Jack Goodman was a fine Bridge player and his widow Pat, our senior member, is no slouch either.

Ernest Brock
Ernest Brock was the only member of Tattersalls in the South West of England. He married Sissie who was a convert to Judaism. They had no children. They were very wealthy and Ernest would have been Lord Mayor of Plymouth but he died prematurely. Both Ernest and Sissie were Aldermen; a ‘Fire Boat’ of the Port of Plymouth Authority was named after Sissie in her memory.

Ernest was the representative of the Victory ward which covered the Barbican district. He insisted that when Sissie died, his money should be put towards building Alms Houses for the poor of Victory Ward. When Sissie died without leaving a will and there being no family to inherit, there was a lawsuit that dragged on for a long time.

The trust won the lawsuit and they teamed up with a charitable organisation and they built a block of modern flats on the site of the old Victory Ward, no longer in existence, which is called Brock House. The Jewish community was given precedence over a number of flats but there is just one Jewish lady resident, noted for her colourful window boxes.

The Cohen family
The Cohen family living in Plymouth today is noted for the Magic Joke Shop which was previously owned by the late Jack Cohen, he was noted for his ready jest. They are not related to the Devonport Cohens of yore. Jack’s father Isadore was a pawnbroker. Isadore was a diminutive man, one Tisha B’Av in Shul I could hear a voice coming from nowhere. I could not see Isadore who was sat on the floor.

Plymouths premier jewellers to-day ‘Michael Spiers’ was founded by Doc Spiers who was not recognised when he arrived in Plymouth, making but a humble living. Coming here from Birmingham, a noted Jewellery Centre, he prospered to create a business with branches also in Cornwall. The present Drakes Jewellers and Plymouth Silversmiths belong to the Hirshman family. Their predecessors were the Nelson family whose shop was an Aladdin’s Cave. This business was destroyed in the Blitz.

In recent years there have been a number of prominent Jewish solicitors in the city, Henry Peck, Arthur Goldberg, Leslie Lipson and to-day our former Honorary Solicitor Clive Lambert. Editors note 2008: Our present solicitor is now Mr Stuart Goodman.

Rosa Courtney and her late husband ran the large Oporto public house, sited where the Sainsbury store now stands; Sam Roseman was a leading publican in Plymouth. He also owned in partnership with Ernie Brock the Palace Theatre, considered by many a superb theatre in the Old Style. It is now used as a nightclub. The last use as a theatre was a Pantomime performance less than twenty years ago. Another leading light was the photographer who was the official photographer to the navy and they had a shop in Union Street.

Lord Mayor of Plymouth
Arthur Goldberg the solicitor, was the only Jew to be appointed Lord Mayor of this city.

Plymouth boasts two professional artists. One is Gordon Frickers, a frequent visitor to Shul, as and when his work allows. Editors note 2008: He donated two much admired paintings to the Shul, that are hanging on walls of the vestry. One includes the interior of the Synagogue,

Here are links to his works which include one of Plymouth Synagogue Exterior, in the second link.

The other professional artist is Robert Lenkowitz, who is descended from a rabbinic family. Editors note 2008: Robert Lenkowitz died in 2002.

A Jewish Renaissance Tribute

To Benny Greenberg, 1922 - 2005

Benny Greenberg, President and pillar of Plymouth Hebrew Congregation sadly died on 22nd April 2005 (5765). He was exceptionally dedicated to the congregation and the Synagogue he loved so much.

Benny was born in Sheffield in September 1922 to immigrant parents from Kovna, Lithuania. They had been on their way to America but just “stopped over” in Sheffield for a while. Tragically, his father deserted his mother and she died when Benny was just six years old. Benny then went to live in Norwood Children’s Home and an uncle bought him a coat which he still wore when he left at fourteen! He then went to live with his beloved grandmother.

In 1939, Benny joined the Royal Navy, being based in Australia and Colombo on Pacific duty. Towards the end of the war he served on the minesweepers in Plymouth, keeping the shipping lanes open at this crucial stage. At one time he crewed for the “Hood” on its penultimate voyage before it was sunk.

In 1944 he met and fell in love with Minnie Gordon, whom he married in 1948. He went into the family greengrocery business with his brother-in-law, Sonny Gordon.

In the community, he served on the Chevra Kadisha committee for 30 years, and became President in 1996. He was acclaimed for inspired talks on synagogue history, going right back to the times of Oliver Cromwell and Menashe ben Israel. He was a self-educated man with great knowledge of Torah and the Jewish way of life. His motto was, “If you haven’t got faith, you haven’t got anything.” His trust of G-d was simple and profound.

He gave wonderful hospitality in both his home and the synagogue, regularly welcoming visitors with a meal. Although he had no family, Minnie’s family (the Gordons and Richmans) became his and they loved him in return as brother and uncle.

Benny was a man of great faith, warmth and humour and who always thought the best of people. We are the poorer for his passing, but heaven is the richer.

His final destination was never in doubt.

Author unknown