A Brief History of the Leeds Jewish Community: Part I

Part 1 of a four-part series exploring the history of the Jewish community in Leeds. See our dedicated page for all entries in this series, plus other articles on related subjects. Today’s entry offers a short look at the community’s story, highlighting some useful sources for further exploration…

There have been Jewish people in Leeds since at least 1735, when the death of Israel Benjamin, of Vicar Lane, was recorded in the burial register of St. Peter’s, the Leeds Parish Church. It was to be almost a century after Benjamin’s burial before anything close to a Jewish community proper was established, however, with a cemetery, marriage and place of worship all known to have existed in the 1830s and 1840s.

Leeds Parish Church burial register entry for Isaac Benjamin, 3 June 1735. (c) http://www.Ancestry.com

But how exactly is any of this ‘known’? Primarily through the work of two local historians – Louis Saipe and Murray Freedman. Of particular note for reconstructing the early years of the Jewish community in Leeds are Saipe’s A History of the Jews of Leeds (1985) and Freedman’s article ‘The Leeds Jewish Community: A Sketch of its History and Development.’ (1998).

Front-cover of Louis Saipe’s A History of the Jews of Leeds. From the collections at Leeds Central Library (c) Leeds Libraries

Even after the initial ‘formation’ of a community proper in the 1840s, the Jewish population in Leeds remained relatively small through the 19th-century – until the arrival of Eastern European Jews from the 1870s: fleeing persecution in their thousands, these newcomers settled in the Leylands area (roughly between North Street and Regent Street), finding work in the factories and sweatshops of the tailoring industry. Histories of the community during this crucial period include Joseph Buckman’s Immigrants and the Class Struggle (1983) and Aaron Kent’s Identity, Migration and Belonging (2015).

Front-cover of Aaron Kent’s Identity, Migration and Belonging. From the collections at Leeds Central Library (c) Leeds Libraries

The new century saw steady gains in prosperity, with many Leeds Jews moving from the Leylands to areas considered more respectable: initially Chapeltown, and then further north. But there was also War – a period covered by Nigel Grizzard’s pamphlet Leeds Jewry and the Great War (1981). Two works take the story to the late 1930s: Ernest Sterne’s Leeds Jewry: 1919-1929 and Amanda Bergen’s ‘Leeds Jewry, 1930-1939: The Challenge of Anti-Semitism.’ (2000).

Developments since the Second World war are covered by Diane Saunders’ impressionistic history, From the Leylands to LS26 (2014), which is primarily told using the voices of ‘real’ people; and Anthony Clavane’s Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United (2010), which partly explores the relationship between the Jewish community and the city’s professional football club. 

Front-cover of guide to material on the Leeds Jewish community, held at the Local and Family History department of the Central Library (c) Leeds Libraries

You can find a more complete list of the available titles in this subject area in our Jewish Leeds research guide, with all the books and articles listed there being available on a reference basis from the same department, on the 2nd floor of the Central Library. Contact us on 0113 37 85005 or library.enquiries@leeds.gov.uk for more information about access.

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