The office of the Lord Mayor of London is one of great prestige, but the title is liable to be misunderstood by those unfamiliar with the English scene. Paris has its mayor, as does New York, and these civic dignitaries - like their counterparts in all English boroughs - are responsible for the municipal administration of the whole of their urban area. There is a movement afoot to introduce an analogous arrangement for greater London, and it is probable that within the next two years a "mayor of London" will take office; but this will in no way prejudice that of the Lord Mayor of London, whose jurisdiction is in fact limited to what is known as the "square mile" at the heart of the city. It is here, on the site of Saxon and Roman London, round the Royal Exchange (=bourse)
St Paul's Cathedral, and the Sephardi synagogue in Bevis Marks, that high finance is concentrated. Small wonder that legend has it that Richard Whittington, a 15th-century Lord Mayor, thought as a child that its streets were paved with gold. The Lord Mayor, as senior magistrate, heads the municipal administration of this tiny area, occasionally taking its seat in court and being responsible for all the day-to-day business of the corporation. But his year of office is also crammed with ceremonial and social engagements, connected with the promotion of the charitable and educational endeavours of the various livery companies (i.e. continuators of the medieval "guilds merchant"), and with the fostering of the City's own historical consciousness. The circumstance that at the first banquet of his year he entertains the Prime Minister with members of the government and the opposition illustrates that although, unlike the mayoralty of Paris, his office is not a political one, it is one, which, nevertheless, can wield substantial influence.
On Friday, 13th November 1998, Lord Levene of Portsoken took the oath on being admitted as the 671st Lord Mayor. Amongst his professional concerns, he has been closely involved in the building of Canary Wharf, where the obelisk-shaped office block - the highest building in London - now dominates the lower reaches of the River Thames. Lord Levene is himself an Ashkenazi; but he is also an honorary member of the Sephardi community in virtue of his chairmanship of the Bevis Marks Trust, which promotes the wider interests and significance of the oldest synagogue in London that dates from 1701. Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, one of the ecclesiastical team that leads the three synagogues which, including that in Bevis Marks, now constitute Kahal Kadosh Shaar Hashamayim ("the Gate of Heaven"), acts as his chaplain.
Lord Levene is the eighth Jew to be Lord Mayor of London, the first being Sir David Salomons (1797-1873) in 1855 - three years before Jews were able to take their seat in parliament even if elected, because they were still required to take an oath "on the true faith of a Christian". The point is relevant here, because the City of London championed the cause of Jewish political emancipation generally, and applauded the endeavours of Moses Montefiore on behalf of persecuted and under- privileged Jewish communities overseas. As his first public act Lord Levene walked, with a retinue, from his official residence to Bevis Marks Synagogue, to participate in the Friday evening service that inaugurates the Sabbath. I do not suppose that the synagogue had ever been so full on a Friday evening except perhaps for those occasions when Kippur falls on Sabbath. In addition to the congregational lay leadership many non-Jews were present - including aldermen of the City Corporation, the Bishop of London, and the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.
On the ceremonial entry of the Lord Mayor, preceded by his sword-bearer, the sheriffs, etc, the choir led the congregation in singing barukh ha-ba - blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Rabbi Levy then explained to those present the significance of welcoming the Sabbath each week as a new bride, and recalled the mutual support of the Jewish community and the city corporation over the three and a half centuries since the Sephardi resettlement in England. The usual service then followed, with some embellishment before its conclusion. The ark was opened, and the prayer for the Queen was recited, followed by that for the State of Israel (the latter read by the Israeli Ambassador, who also conveyed the greetings of the President and the Prime Minister of Israel). Thereafter the Lord Mayor proceeded to the reading- desk, and read the following extract ("concerning the administration of justice and the duties of judges") from an ethical work entitled Menorah ha- ma'or (Candelabrum of illumination) by Rabbi Israel Al-naqawa of Toledo, who died in the anti-Jewish riots of 1391 (the surname Al-naqawa, or Elneceve, etc, still survives amongst some Sephardi communities). The choice was an appropriate one, since, as stated above, the Lord Mayor is ex officio chief magistrate; and it was a moving experience to hear the ethical admonitions of a rabbi, murdered in Spain over six hundred years ago, publicly rehearsed in London by its first citizen. Lord Levene read the first sentence in Hebrew and then the whole of the following English translation:
"The rabbinical view that one who is suitable for office should not decline to bear its burdens applies when all concerned welcome his election and his authority; if that is not the case, he should excuse himself. Anyone appointed, be it to the judiciary, to some administrative office, or to one commanding much dignity, ought not make too much of his rank nor allow himself to become a cause of dissension …Nor one should crave election to a position of authority with a view to perverting justice by favouring his friends or kinsfolk or paying off old scores…. For such behaviour it is the world in general, no less than the individual who is the immediate cause, that suffers retribution. Indeed, the rabbis teach that whosoever runs too tight a ship for improper or unworthy motives forfeits his share in the world to come…Not even the king ought to feel any need to inspire his subjects with undue fear; his administration of justice should be equitable, as the psalmist says (72,2) he shall judge thy people with righteousness and thy poor with judgement. Further we read in the Talmud how Rabbi Eleazar declared that the incumbent of any public office whose administration is one of gentle consideration earns the privilege of providing leadership in the world to come, quoting the verse (Isaiah 49,10) for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the [heavenly] springs of water shall he guide them".
After the Lord Mayor had completed his reading, he was addressed by Mr Lucien Gubbay, President of the Elders of the Congregation, who used the occasion to revive a long-discontinued practice. In its early years the Congregation, sensitive as to the security of its status in England and apprehensive lest its members be regarded as aliens, thought it prudent to make an annual gift to the Lord Mayor, whose good will could be of material value to them in times of crisis; the London Huguenots and Dutch community acted similarly. From 1671 to 1779 the Congregation presented a piece of silver, and a number of these cups and salvers survive, in private possession or in public collections. The need for mayoral protection is long since past; but the Congregation is very much aware of the help afforded it by Lord Levene in 1992, when, through his connections in the City of London, he was instrumental in securing both municipal and other financial help for Bevis Marks Synagogue, which had suffered badly from bomb-damag in consequence of an outrage perpetrated by the Irish Republican Army. Mr Gubbay consequently explained that the Congregation took great pleasure in presenting a Jewish Lord Mayor with a nineteenth-century silver inkstand.
After the service the Lord Mayor and his company returned to his official residence to host a reception. As drinks were being served, Rabbi Levy suggested to the Lord Mayor that it was appropriate to recite Kiddush; the Lord Mayor at once agreed, and asked him to do so. Rabbi Levy demurred. "No", he said, " in the Mansion House it is the Lord Mayor who is ba'al ha-bayit". So it was Lord Levene himself who said Kiddush - in the fullest sense a Kiddush ha-shem.
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