The Jews of York – Gyora Novak – CC4832


“Quite apart from its praiseworthy objective, this disc should have an immediate appeal to the listener which should transcend the subject”


The Jews of York – A Continuum of Hate

“May His great Name be exalted and sanctified

In the world which He created according to His will.”

The murder of the Jews of York in the year 1190 was a further rehearsal to a long drama of pursuit and murder which began many years before. The history of the extermination of the Jews has important historical roots going back to the time of Jesus. It was the Emperor Herod who, in the year 6 AD, ordered the murder of the firstborn of Jewish families in Bethlehem in his craven attempt to kill the infant Jesus whom he saw as a rival to his throne. Historians report as many as 144,000 deaths from this primitive genocide from which Jesus, himself a Jew, was one of the few who escaped this pogrom.

In the year 1096, in Trier, the poor harvest which had brought famine to the Christian community was revenged by the first Crusaders who, in their march through what is now part of Germany, had set off to crush the Muslim infidels but, first, practiced their hate on the Jewish community at the banks of the Moselle River. Chroniclers report of the actions of the local bishop’s military officer who entered the palace and ordered the Jews hovering there and seeking protection to leave the premises saying to them “You cannot be saved – your God does not wish to save you now as he did in earlier days.” Many sought to rescue their lives and those of their families by converting to Christianity or paying tribute to the bishop, but the hatred of the masses and their need to find a scapegoat for what was a natural phenomenon, let to massed massacre of the Jewish population.

“…and may his salvation blossom and His anointed be near during your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel.”

The extinction of the Jews of York, England, in the year 1190 was a further rehearsal in the drama which culminated in the Shoah of the 20th century. Attacks on Jews had begun six months earlier outside Westminster Abbey in London, during the coronation of Richard the Lionheart. Their entry into the abbey had been barred. On the 17th of March in the year 1190, all the Jews living in the city of York were killed or committed suicide. The Jews, who were compelled to wear yellow badges to identify their ethnic origin (the same colour worn by the Jews many centuries later in the Nazi labour and death camps), fled from the rage of the rabid population and sought refuge in the Tower of York, leaving behind a trail of their dead and dying. Turned upon by the King, his guard and their very neighbours, the Jewish men first killed their wives and children before setting fire to the tower, and then committed suicide to avoid the shame and indignity of falling victim to the masses. No one was ever punished for this act and there was no trial and no Kaddish was sung in their memory.

“May the prayers and supplications of all Israel be accepted by their Father who is in Heaven.”

However, the murder of the Jews of York did not bring an end to this chain of violence and hate. In the late 11th century these same crusaders, led by one Count Emico, soldiers who had committed such atrocities in Trier, took revenge on the Jews in Mainz after the bishop there had renounced his protection of them but promised them refuge were they to pay enormous reparations to him. Thereafter, the Christian soldiers broke into their refuge and murdered more than 700 of those sheltered there, the mothers cutting the throats of their nursing children and perishing by their own hands rather than allow themselves to be murdered at the hands of the “uncircumcised”. Cynically, with the money extorted from the now dead Jewish population in Mainz, Emico and his band continued on their way to Jerusalem to fight the Muslim hordes. This cynical episode repeats itself in the luring of the Jews into Switzerland during the Nazi era with the promise of safety from extermination only to be forced to surrender their possessions before being deported back to Germany. In Spain and Portugal, leading up to the Inquisition, the massed murder of the Jews gained a new impetus. In the 14th century, in Barcelona, the entire Jewish community was murdered by a rioting mob. The Spanish Christians considered the Muslims to be infidels and quickly added the Jews to this category as revenge for the economic power they had amassed as bankers and merchants. Many were ordered to convert and, after having done so, were murdered, nonetheless, with the premise that their “conversions” were not serious and that they remained “unbelievers”. In all, from the reunification of Spain in 1492 until the end of the Inquisition, the Christian conquest of Spain is estimated to have cost the lives of over 600,000 Jews in that land.

“…May their be abundant peace from heaven and good life, satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge, healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, relief and salvation for us and for all his people.”

The culmination of this historical wave of hate against the Jews was the Shoah, the systematic and massed extermination of the Jews during the Hitler rule. From 1941 until 1945, the Jews were targeted and exterminated in a genocide which cost the lives of six million people. During this period, between 1941 and 1945, there were close to 500,000 persons who were direct participants in the planning and execution of the Holocaust, an action which began in 1935 with the Nuremberg Laws which excluded the Jews from civil society and established the ghettos and reached its apex with the Wannsee-Konferenz in 1942, which codified the, so called, “final solution”.

“In the world which will be renewed and where He will give life to the dead and raise them to eternal life and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and complete his temple there…and may the Holy One, blessed is He, reign in His sovereign splendour.”

The story of the Jews of York should serve us as a reminder and is an important chapter in the history of hate in our society. What was once seen as a standard of medieval behaviour finds its further development in our modern time with political power sought and prejudices propagated through violence. What the western world committed in times past has been accepted as a further chapter in this continuum and now all “infidels”, be they Jews, Christians, Muslims or others, become targets of violence and extinction directed against those “different” than we. It is now the Christians and the Jews and others who are targets of this irrational hate. Perhaps this is the price of the insanity of our own society over many centuries, an insanity that Shakespeare so clearly depicted in “The Merchant of Venice” and in which even religions that speak of love and forgiveness have played a conclusive role. © Kevin Wood. (2015)

**Composers Website

Review: I – Music Web International (May 2007)

The Israeli composer Gyora Novak was born in 1934. Whilst in London in 1990 he saw a television programme devoted to the York Massacre of 1190 in which all the city’s Jews were killed. Attacked on all sides the Jews fled to the wooden Clifford’s Tower, which they then burned to the ground in mass suicide. Novak sought to commemorate the event and to promote – in its widest sense – understanding and reconciliation. Clearly other murderous things were going on at the time in Europe and the Dirge thus takes on a contemporary yet timeless feel.

The Lament is a thirty-six part text set to music, recited and sung in Hebrew with a spoken English translation. The parts are divided equally between a baritone speaker and a mezzo soprano singer. There’s a small accompanying instrumental group which consists of horn, oboe, harp, cello and percussion. The harpist in this recording, David Watkins who, having worked closely with Novak, was responsible for the instrumental arrangements.

The first half is recited in Hebrew, the second in English; the composer is himself the reciter. Though there are texts in Hebrew and English it’s actually rather difficult to follow as the texts are marked 1-8 and there are fifty separate tracks. Hebrew is a forceful language and Novak’s recitations are considerably more vehement than the English recitations of Rohan McCollough. There is also the curious, ghostly and quiet Hebrew to be heard underneath the English spoken text. I wondered at first if this wasn’t a mistake – and I still do, but it does have a certain resonance and sense of continuum about it. The graph of the accompanying instruments mirrors the text’s emotive gravity either through sparse comments or through more intense textures.

Certain things act as refrains, the repeatedly tolling Kaddish for instance. And there are sections for the mourning cello over harp and discreet percussion. There are references to Masada, another famous massacre-suicide, and the questions “How can we forgive? Who will forgive?…” But gradually the music becomes more consoling and emptied of external feelings.

This is after all an occasional piece. I believe it has only once been publicly performed – on the 850th anniversary of the massacre, on 17 March 1995 in the remains of Clifford’s Tower in York. Jonathan Woolf.

Review: II – Music Web International (2016)

Works based on historic atrocities appear to be a phenomenon which has arisen during the twentieth century – one thinks of Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Andrzej Panufnik’s Katýn Epitaph, Martinů’s Lidice and Michael Parkin’s Srebenica among others – where the composer reflects from a personal and emotional perspective on events that lie during their immediate lifetimes or the recent past. Such works tend by their very nature to be relatively brief in duration; but here the Israeli composer Gyora Novak has produced a work lasting well over half an hour on the subject of one of the greatest of mediaeval atrocities in England during the Middle Ages, the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190. The booklet notes for this release explain the background to the piece, beginning with the composer’s viewing of a television documentary in 1992 and his subsequent visit to York in 1993. It was intended to be performed only once, on the 805th anniversary of the tragedy, in the ruins of Clifford’s Tower; but this disc, funded by the “York 1190 Remembered Foundation”, is promoting the placing of a commemorative stone at the site, and the acoustic suggests that this is a later studio recording (the date and venues given above derive from information given on the hbdirect website).

A brief summary of the event itself may well be in order, since this is one of the blood-soaked pages of English history which has been airbrushed out of many textbooks; Volume III of the Oxford History of England manages to dispose of the whole matter in a single paragraph. During the preparations for the departure of Richard ‘The Lion Heart’ on crusade, attacks on rich Jewish communities throughout the country took place, culminating in York where the local population turned on their neighbours (who had lived peacefully under royal protection in the city for many generations), forcing them to take refuge in the Tower where they all – men, women and children – committed suicide. The King’s Guard failed to protect them, and indeed joined in the attacks; no trial was ever held, nobody was punished, and no attempt was made to mourn those who died in the ruins of Clifford’s Tower. In all fairness it should also be reported that the King did attempt to stem the persecution in London, and that contemporary chroniclers such as William of Newburgh (Newbury) did fully report and condemn the events. William’s history provided the basis for an earlier work on the subject, Clifford’s Tower by Malcolm Lipkin, recorded by the Nash Ensemble which is no longer listed in the current catalogue. Following on Lyrita’s issue earlier this year it should be restored to circulation.

The recording here gives us two complete performances of the work, one in the original Hebrew and one in English translation. It appears that the latter is superimposed on the same Hebrew performance, with the spoken text in the former language audible at a distance. Each of these two renditions is divided into twenty-five individual tracks, but the text – given in both languages – in the booklet identifies eight numbered sections (but see my note below), and elsewhere refers to the work as containing 36 separate parts. It is therefore sometimes difficult to ascertain, when listening to the music, exactly where we are in terms of the text. This is particularly true in the Hebrew performance, where the words are given solely in the Hebrew alphabet without any provided transliteration. The music itself is often very beautiful indeed, and is superbly well performed. The composer speaks what is described as the ‘baritone part’ and has a very expressive style of delivery which fits the subject well; Eidit Arad delivers the sung mezzo-soprano lines, sometimes rising very high, with a simplicity which is touching. David Watkins, who assisted the composer with the arrangements, leads an ensemble which is always responsive and poised. We are told that the composer is a “self-taught artist” but he has a sense of melodic line which is immediately appealing. As a piece of music, Novak’s score is less immediately dramatic than Lipkin’s; but it is no less deeply felt for all that.

Quite apart from its praiseworthy objective, this disc should have an immediate appeal to the listener which should transcend the subject. In the pure sense of involvement the English-language version is more immediately communicative; but it also serves to highlight the fact that the text given in the booklet over eight tracks — to which I referred in the previous paragraph — is far from complete. The polemic tone of the words may grate on some ears — the people of York are described as “the dregs of humanity” — but given the subject-matter this is completely comprehensible. The ending of the work, dying away on a wisp of sound, is very moving indeed. Paul Corfield Godfrey.