A Jewish academy in north London

WHEN I ENTERED HIGHGATE School at the age of thirteen, daily attendance of religious activity was obligatory. Highgate School was basically a Church of England establishment, but by 1965, 400 years after the school’s founding, it recognised religious diversity to some extent. I was offered the choice of attending ‘chapel’ (Church of England), or ‘Roman Catholic Circle’, or ‘Jewish Circle’. In those, now far-off days, the options of ‘Hindu Circle’ and ‘Islamic Circle’ or even ‘Witches Circle’ were not available.

A few days ago, I received a facsimile edition of “The Northern Heights of London” by the Quaker William Howitt (1792-1879), published in 1869. In a short section on religious communities in Highgate, I read the following:

“Some years ago there was a Jewish academy in Highgate, conducted by Mr Hyman Hurwitz. It was the only thing of the kind in the kingdom, except one on a small scale in Brighton. It had generally about a hundred pupils, sons of the chief families of the Jews; and there was a synagogue for their use. There was also a school for Jewish young ladies, established by Miss Hurwitz, the sister of Mr Hurwitz.”

Seeing this, which was information I had never seen before, I reached for my copy of “A History of the Jews in England” by Albert Montefiore Hyamson (1875-1954), published in 1928. I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore (India) for a mere 200 Indian Rupees (currently just over £2).  Hyamson, a civil servant and historian, was an ardent advocate of founding a single state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, an idea that infuriated many Zionists. Regarding Hyman Hurwitz (1770-1844), he wrote in some detail, which I will summarise and add to.

Hurwitz, born in Posen (now ‘Poznan’ in Poland), was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who is buried in Highgate, where he died. They lived near each other in Highgate:

“Coleridge and Hurwitz were neighbors and friends living in Highgate, London, England. There are fourteen letters from Coleridge discussing the work of both Hurwitz and Coleridge, including publishing and editing. One letter dated 17 May 1825 from Coleridge encloses a note from his nephew John Taylor Coleridge regarding publication of Hurtwitz’s work through Mr. Murray. A theoretical discussion on the history of language by Coleridge is the subject of the 16 September 1829 letter. The correspondence also includes a recommendation from Coleridge to Leonard Horner regarding Hurwitz’s position as Hebrew professor at the new University College, London, dated 27 November 1827.” (https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9954204173503681).

 Hurwitz opened The Highgate Academy, a higher school for Jewish boys, in about 1799. Later, on the recommendation of Coleridge, he was appointed the first Professor of Hebrew at University College (London), now UCL, which was founded as a university for Jews, atheists, dissenters, and women, in 1826. Hurwitz’s publications included “Introduction to Hebrew Grammar” (1835), which was the standard grammar for English Jews for many years, and “Hebrew Tales” (1826) as well as “Vindicia Hebraica” (1820).  

The school in Highgate was housed in Church House, which I will discuss soon. In 1821, Hurwitz extended the lease on these premises for another seventeen years. Soon after this, he handed over the direction of his school to his assistant Leopold Neumegen (1787-1875), who moved from Highgate to Kew in 1840, where he lived in Gloucester House, and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Fulham. In 1821 or 1822, Hurwitz moved his home from Highgate to Grenada Cottage in the Old Kent Road (“Marginalia: Camden to Hutton”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, publ. by Princeton University Press: 1980).

Chris Rubinstein wrote (www.friendsofcoleridge.com/MembersOnly/CB24/12%20CB%2024%20Rubinstein.pdf) that Coleridge’s friendship with Hurwitz continued after Hyman left Highgate:

“Coleridge described him as the Luther of Judaism. His eulogies of Hurwitz in his Notebooks and letters were copious from 1816 onwards. The two co-operated in the field of Hebrew learning, each of use to the other as they both well knew. Coleridge relied on Hurwitz for much of his understanding of meanings in the Old Testament, as Hurwitz was authoritative regarding the subtleties of Hebrew, ‘the science of words’ Coleridge’s own phrase. Without his help Coleridge’s vast erudition would have been seriously diminished. And he helped Hurwitz with publication of a least two of his books, one a study of the Hebrew Language, then innovative though ultimately superseded, and the other Hebrew Tales, a best-seller in the 19th century. Coleridge himself contributed three of its many insightful and telling anecdotes. Each of them used the other’s knowledge openly and with attribution.”

So much for the close relationship between a famous poet and a now obscure Jewish scholar. Let us return to Church House in Highgate. Church House is currently number 10 South Grove, next door to the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, in the heart of Highgate Village. The land on which it stands was once owned by Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565), who founded Highgate School in 1565, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. The present building with its red brick façade was built in the early 18th century.

In 1759, the house came into the possession of Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789), a surveyor and lawyer. Following his death, the house was left to his wife, and then to his son, John Sidney Hawkins, who died in 1842.  It was from this man that Hurwitz leased Church House at first between 1800 and 1820, and then for a further 17 years as already mentioned (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol17/pt1/pp32-38).

Well, I did not know anything about Hurwitz and his Highgate Jewish school when I was at the older educational establishment not many yards away. I used to pass Church House every Thursday morning when those, including me, who had opted for Chapel rather than Jewish Circle or Roman Catholic Circle, attended a morning service at the Victorian Gothic Church of St Michael not far from it.

Hurwitz was born in what was Prussia a couple of decades before my great-great grandfather Dr Nathan Ginsberg (1814-1890), who was born in the Prussian city of Breslau (now ‘Wrocław’ in Poland). Both men were intellectual giants. Neither of them would have been able to teach in German universities without first converting to Christianity. Both of them founded schools for Jewish children, Hyman in London, and Nathan in the Prussian city of Beuthen (now ‘Bytom’, in Poland). Nathan, my ancestor, started his school because he was unwilling to be baptised in order to be eligible to accept the professorships he was offered in Germany. Hyman established his school in London before Jews were able to teach in English Universities, but fortunately for him the establishment of University College with its willingness to accept Jewish people, allowed him to become a professor. I wonder whether my forefather, Nathan,  ever considered trying to become a university teacher at the university in London that opened when he was only twelve years old and about which he must surely have been aware as he grew older.

Stung on the tongue: a careless diagnosis

Big bee_640

I cannot remember the name of the person who taught us dental pathology back in 1981 at University College Hospital Dental School, but one thing he told us made a deep impression on me.  He said that it was unlikely that we would see oral cancers frequently in general dental practice, but when we did see one we would feel a certain ‘jizz’ (our teacher’s word), a feeling that we were looking at something unusual and worrying.

One day when I was in practice, a delightful late middle-aged woman visited my surgery as a new patient. She said there was something on her tongue that had been bothering her for several weeks and was making eating and speech difficult. She had been to her doctor (medical), who told her that she had had a bee sting on her tongue. She told me that she had been taking antibiotics prescribed for it for  quite a time and the condition was only getting worse.

I had never encountered anyone with a bee sting on their tongue. The lady’s story and her doctor’s diagnosis sounded strange. She showed me her tongue. As soon as I saw the huge ulcer on the side of it and its peculiar border, I felt that ‘jizz’, which our pathology teacher had mentioned. I knew that the poor lady had, almost without a doubt, a carcinoma on her tongue. I told her my suspicions, and she looked relieved, and was grateful. Clearly, she had not believed her doctor’s story. I phoned the local oral surgery department, and they admitted her promptly.

About a year later, the lady reappeared. During the surgical treatment of her cancer, she had lost several teeth and wanted a denture to replace them. Sadly, her mouth was by now so distorted that making a prosthesis was beyond my competence. I referred her to a prosthetic specialist. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough for his work to be completed.

Whether earlier intervention would have saved her life, or at least prolonged it, is a question than cannot be answered. 

In my 35 years in dental practice, I only ever saw two patients with obvious oral cancers. However, I did refer many patients to have unusual looking lesions seen by oral surgical specialists. None of these gave me that ‘jizz’ nor turned out to be cancerous.

Teach yourself anatomy

Dr Thomas A Quilliam, who died in 2008, taught me general human anatomy during my first year as a dental student at University College London (‘UCL’). His teaching method was quite unlike anything I had encountered before.

Quilliam

At our first meeting with him, Quilliam told us that as he was lazy, he preferred the students to give the lectures whilst he sat and listened at the back of the lecture theatre. He was not kidding, because this is exactly what happened.

We had anatomy ‘lectures’ five days a week and did dissections of a human cadaver on several afternoons. Each week, several students were assigned particular topics chosen from the syllabus. Each student was required to compose a twenty-minute talk on his or her topic, as well as designing simple diagrams, which could be drawn quickly on examination scripts, to illustrate it. For example, I can remember being asked to talk about the lymphatic drainage of the mammary glands. You might well wonder whether this was ever any use during my 35 years in dental practice. I am not sure that it was.

At each class in the lecture theatre, three students gave their presentations. Before that, Quilliam would treat us to short extracts from (usually) American medical education films. I can remember one with the thrilling title “The surgical anatomy of the kidney”. We would watch the first few minutes, before Quilliam switched off the projector. Then, each of the three students who had prepared for that day, gave their presentations. Most students, even the shyest in the class, did a good job, and made useful drawings and diagrams. Some enterprising students even prepared informative models of the anatomical structure they were describing. Every now and then, Quilliam, who sat at the back of the banked seats in the lecture theatre, used to ask a question to clarify what the speaker was saying. If the student answered “maybe” or “perhaps”, Quilliam would say: “That’s a typical University College answer.” Actually, it was. When I was studying physiology at UCL, we were taught to question everything and be reserved about stating that something was a certain fact.

QUILL

There were 50 students in my year. In all, we must have had at least 150 hours of ‘lecture’ sessions. As three students gave talks each session, this meant that everyone on the course had to prepare about nine topics from the syllabus. This ensured that everyone was likely to encounter at least one of his or her own topics in the final written or viva-voce examination.

You might be thinking that Quilliam really was a bit lazy, but you would be wrong. What his method achieved was very clever, and an important preparation for the clinical environment. Not only did his method avoid hours of having to listen to the same person giving the same lectures that he might have given year after year, but it also taught us to communicate ideas. Quilliam’s method of making us, the students, give presentations was a good training in the art of presenting unfamiliar topics clearly and comprehensibly. In dentistry, especially nowadays (and even when I entered practice), patients like to be kept informed about the nature of their problems and how they can be resolved.