Grapevine: Anglophone Jewish history

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 Wikipedia webpage in use on a laptop computer is seen in this photo illustration taken in Washington, January 17, 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Wikipedia webpage in use on a laptop computer is seen in this photo illustration taken in Washington, January 17, 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)

A HIGH ratio of people who immigrate to Israel following their retirement were well-known community leaders, prominent academics, widely respected physicians, hi-tech gurus, lawyers, athletes and more. Yet when they take up their new lives in Israel, they sink into relative anonymity, which is a pity, considering that many are excellent public speakers, and others could contribute to society as mentors to young people who are entering the professions from which the newcomers have retired.

One such relatively new immigrant, an amateur historian with a penchant for Anglophone Jewish history, is retired British judge Bernard Wolfson, who is the father of a professional historian, but whose own history as a native son of Liverpool includes going to the same school as that attended by The Beatles.

Wolfson was the guest speaker this week at the Anglo Jewish Women’s Rosh Chodesh Lunch Club in San Simon. Punctuating his address with understated British wit and humor, he was truly a delight for those members of the audience who come from Commonwealth countries, though some of the Americans had some difficulty in following the thread of the story, which Wolfson traced from the days of Oliver Cromwell to the present time.

Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and officially there were no Jews in England till 1656, following an agreement reached between Cromwell and Menasseh Ben Israel, a Portuguese rabbi who founded the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam in 1626. When Jews were expelled from Portugal, many found a new home in Amsterdam, where the Sephardi Portuguese synagogue continues to function. Thus the first Jews to arrive in England in 1656 were Sephardi Jews, who by 1701 had built the famed Bevis Marks synagogue, which continues to this day to serve the needs of London’s Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. 

Ashkenazi Jews, mostly from Hamburg, came some years later and built the Great Synagogue in the seventh century, but it was destroyed during the blitz in World War II.

 President Isaac Herzog addresses Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast in Dallas (credit: Screenshot / ALL ISRAEL NEWS) President Isaac Herzog addresses Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast in Dallas (credit: Screenshot / ALL ISRAEL NEWS)

For quite a long time, Sephardi Jews in England were considered culturally superior to their Ashkenazi coreligionists.

Curiously, the chief rabbis of the British Empire and later the British Commonwealth were all Ashkenazi.

Aaron Hart, whom Wolfson regards as not much of a scholar, is widely recognized as Britain’s first chief rabbi. One of the chief rabbis for whom Wolfson has great respect is Joseph Herman Hertz, who succeeded Hermann Adler, who succeeded Nathan Marcus Adler, the founder and developer of the United Synagogue. Wolfson sees the Chief Rabbinate and the United Synagogue as the backbone of Orthodox Jewish life in England, but conceded that neither has as much power as in past years. 

Hertz, he feels, has been underrated. For one thing, he was the chief rabbi and spokesman for the whole Jewish world, because the British Empire during his time included 42 Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. While there were some great learned rabbis in Europe, said Wolfson, they were not equipped to represent the Jewish world in the international arena.

Wolfson cited Hertz’s lone-wolf battle against the League of Nations, which was considering a proposal to make some slight changes in the Gregorian calendar. This would have had a disastrous effect on Jewish Sabbath observers, since the Jewish Sabbath would have fallen on a different day of the Gregorian calendar every week. It was a battle that Hertz won, but one for which he received insufficient credit.

Wolfson also told a fascinating tale about a conditional divorce and the unfortunate consequences for someone who challenged its validity. The sequence of events is unfortunately too long and too complicated to repeat here, but Wolfson likes to play bridge, which he says is a good way to make friends. So anyone who is a bridge player and wants to hear some of Wolfson’s anecdotes before or after the game should know that playing bridge with him would be a means of learning about Anglophone Jewish history.

■ WIKIPEDIA, USUALLY accessed via Dr. Google, is not always accurate. Case in point is that of Rabbi Dr. Yosef Zvi Carlebach, who was murdered 80 years ago, together with his wife, Elisheva, their daughters Sarah, Ruth and Naomi and his brother Shimshon. 

One hears the name Carlebach in Israel, and one of two people immediately spring to mind. One is the singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the other is Azriel Carlebach, the founder of Maariv, which is today part of The Jerusalem Post Group. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi will, on Sunday, April 10, hold a Carlebach memorial afternoon, with the participation of Prof. Yaakov Koller of the Carlebach Institute, Yossi Barkan, who will talk about Carlebach in Jerusalem, and Shai Gillis, who will discuss contemporary thoughts on Torah with Derech Eretz.

A quick check of Wikipedia to find out more about Dr. Yosef Zvi Carlebach, who was apparently a great proponent of Torah with Derech Eretz, produced a surprise and erroneous piece of information. It stated that he was Shlomo Carlebach’s father, when in fact, he was Shlomo Carlebach’s uncle. Shlomo Carlebach’s father was Naftali Carlebach, and his mother was Paula (Pesia) née Cohn. Shlomo Carlebach had a twin brother, Eli Haim, and a sister, Shulamit Levovitz. This branch of the Carlebach family left Germany in 1931 and went to Austria, then to Switzerland and from there to the United States, settling in New York.

Presumably the event at Yad Ben-Zvi will set the record straight. To register, telephone Ayala at 054 478-0004 or email [email protected]

■ VISITORS TO Jerusalem who are in the capital for a brief period and staying at one of the inner-city hotels, can still catch up on sightseeing in the Old City, or absorb the atmosphere of Mahaneh Yehuda market, or visit one of the museums within easy walking distance of most hotels. 

One such museum is the Friends of Zion, which last week was visited by President Isaac Herzog, who was impressed by the technology that helps to tell the story of Zionist heroism and hardship, and the kindness and compassion of non-Jews who in times of crisis helped the Jewish people to return to their ancestral homeland and thereby fulfill the biblical promise. 

He also visited the Warrior Exhibition at the museum, named in memory of border policewoman Hadas Malka, who was killed in a terrorist attack at the Nablus Gate some four-and-a-half years ago. 

Also present during the visit were Malka’s parents and some 100 border policemen and women, members of the Home Front Command and dozens of premilitary cadets from the school where Hadas was a student. While the young people told Herzog of their combat experiences, the president, in turn, told them the multifaceted story of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. 

It was Herzog’s first visit to the museum; looking around he said that it tells the Zionist story very well.

[email protected]