The festival of light: the history of Hanukkah from Cornwall's ancient Jewish community

Hanukkah with menorah jewish holiday traditional candelabra with candles Menorah

Hanukkah with menorah jewish holiday traditional candelabra with candles Menorah - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cornwall's Jewish Kehillat Kernow comes of age this year - as celebrations begin for The Festival of Lights, we discover how Jewish history has intertwined with The Duchy, writes Stephen Roberts

Legends suggest, the Jews arrived in Cornwall more than 1,000 years ago - and some ancient place names seem to support this: Marazion is posited as Cornish for ‘Jewish Market’. Market Jew Street in Penzance is likely a corruption of ‘Marghas Yow’ (Thursday Market in Cornish) and similarly with Marazion.

There is some evidence that there were Jewish people in Cornwall in the 13th century. Jewish communities were established in the 18th century, but had largely died out during the 19th: the Falmouth synagogue closed 1882.

Hannakh 2021

Jeremy Jacobson standing outside a synagogue in Tel Aviv. - Credit: Jeremy Jacobson

Today, Kehillat Kernow’s members come from varying backgrounds and different countries, so it feels like a true ‘Cornish Diaspora’. As the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks says: ‘Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities’. We should never be afraid of being different.' 

The diaspora was the dispersion of the Jewish people beyond the state of Israel. Israel has only existed since 1948 and has a population of just over nine million of whom around three-quarters are Jewish. The world population of Jews, however, is more than 14 million: with over half of the world’s Jewish population living beyond Israel’s boundaries. 

'The history of the Jewish community in Cornwall is interesting,' says Jeremy Jacobson OBE, the chairman of Kehillat Kernow. 'There were definitely communities established in the early-18th century with possibly Exeter-based pedlars making the trip across the Tamar to sell their wares. Some decided to stay because of Falmouth’s importance as a port, which bestowed opportunities.

'We know pedlars stayed at a tavern run by a Jewish landlord, which came to act as their supply depot. Those communities became established, mainly in Falmouth and Penzance, but also in Truro, with synagogues in the first two. Jewish cemeteries were also established.

The old Star Inn in Penzance. This is the site of the onetime Jewish synagogue in the town

The old Star Inn in Penzance. This is the site of the onetime Jewish synagogue in the town - Credit: Bill Boaden, source – www.flickr.com

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'Penzance’s has recently been restored, and Falmouth’s which served dissenters as well as the Jewish community, is also in the process of being restored. Those earlier communities had died out though by the early-19th century. As Falmouth declined as a port, and staple industries tailed off, e.g. tin mining and fishing, lots of Jews who were in business moved away to find other opportunities. It was hard for such a small community to prosper long-term”.

So, what of the new community? In many respects it is a ‘virtual’ community as its members do not all live in the same place. 'Kehillat Kernow was established by a group of Jews who originally didn’t know of one another’s existence. There are groups in and around Truro, Falmouth and Penzance again, but our numbers are really scattered all over. There are some near Liskeard, in Mousehole, Camborne and Redruth, and others in the far South West. We don’t have a synagogue, but we are able to gather in different places for services and festivals, so the virtual community does become an actual one on occasion.

'Not all living together makes us an atypical community though. Most will usually congregate in cities and towns, so you don’t get many rural communities. In Falmouth there are a few living relatively close together but for most of us this is a virtual community, and for us, and other communities, the Internet has been a godsend during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The former synagogue in Falmouth

The former synagogue in Falmouth, which was built in 1806, closed in 1882, and is today the Summerhill Studio - Credit: Tim Green, source – www.flickr.com

'We have about 100 members in total. There are more older members because a significant number have retired to Cornwall. Our youngest member is just two, whereas our oldest is 91. We have an eclectic mix of occupations represented: doctors; lawyers including the retired; accountants; engineers; a woodsman; writers; and ex-civil servants'. The latter includes Jeremy who worked for the British Council, which builds connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts, culture, education and the English language.

'As with many other groups, the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced our face-to-face meetings, although we did have a Spring outing to one of the many beautiful Cornish gardens. A lot of us rediscovered our love of nature during the lockdowns and our members, lots of whom have good gardens, were no different. I grow tomatoes, veg, and have a grapevine in the greenhouse.
  
'Our community’s numbers are steady. A few people move away, such as youngsters heading off to find jobs. This does bring some benefits, however, as they will join a Jewish community wherever they move to which helps to establish links, eg some moved to Bristol, so these different communities can share activities online. Some people have also moved in, however, such as recent retirees. Some new arrivals are still working such as a couple of schoolteachers and we also have a pair of university lecturers who’ve been here some time. 

Seder plate for Jewish Passover.

You can see the seder plate with different foods on it, including bitter herbs and chariest (sweet paste made with dried fruit and nuts or similar) to symbolise the bitterness of slavery and the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to make the bricks for building the pyramids. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

'Our first religious event was in September for the Jewish High Holy Days, which included the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement or Sabbath of Sabbaths). All our festivals move around on the Lunar calendar. Services were held online with two meals where food was served outside: Some people said these were the best High Holy Days they ever had because they were an antidote having not been together.

'We really were scrambling about last year because of the pandemic, so held Friday evening short services, where we could light candles together, say blessings, sing songs etc. Friday services utilised Zoom with different people leading each time.

'From October we’ll be continuing our Friday evening online services, enabling some people to attend who couldn’t previously, but will resume a Saturday morning service face-to-face, which will still be broadcast so others can participate. We might make a mess of it the first time, but that’s part of the fun. With that new mix of face-to-face and online perhaps we have the best of both worlds.

“'don’t just meet for religious purposes. There are also cultural activities,for example the alliterative ‘Food, Film, Fact and Fiction Club’. Nothing much happens in Jewish life without food! The Jewish Museum in London has been running an exhibition, Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects so we asked people to choose one, find out then talk about it, or alternatively find something in their home which is related to their Jewish identity.

Marazion is home to the tidal island St Michael's Mount

Marazion is posited as Cornish for ‘Jewish Market’ - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Kehillat Kernow plays its part in promoting tolerance as it looks beyond its Jewish faith, working with seven other faiths within the Cornwall Faith Forum to foster understanding. Tolerance, education, dialogue and being outward looking are all the antithesis of prejudice.

'We also play a role in the Cornwall Faith Forum, which brings together people from multiple faiths to work together on different things, e.g. working for peace, as well as being involved in a lot of educational work,' he adds. 'There is no sense here of a community in isolation.'


Hanukkah 2021 begins Sunday, 28 November at sunset (in 39 days) and ends Monday, 6 December at nightfall.