(Raphael Mostel’s article appeared in Forward, 10/6/2006; via Patricia N. Saffran.)
For years, it has been commonly believed that Jews were banned from England in 1290 and not allowed back until Oliver Cromwell lifted the ban in 1656. But new research, uncovered through means worthy of a first-rate detective novel, has revealed that not only were there Jews in the Britain; they were right under the royal noses.
The central hero of the story is Roger Prior, a Shakespearean scholar who, in an almost midrashic weaving together of scanty tidbits of inconsistent and usually overlooked historic minutiae, uncovered the hitherto unsuspected presence of Jews at the very heart of England’s cultural life of the period, in the Tudor Court itself. And we’re not talking just a few, but rather, it seems, the majority of the court musicians of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were of Jewish heritage. It is a complicated, fascinating tale of historical excavation, one that involves a series of discoveries, from the identity of the mysterious “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets to the startling hypothesis that the whole grand European tradition of string music was born directly of Jewish hands.
Let’s start at the beginning.