'Minhag Anglia'

Michael Clark examines how British Jews created their own customs.

albion book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
albion book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Albion and Jerusalem: The Anglo-Jewish Community in the Post-Emancipation Era 1858-1887 By Michael Clark Oxford University Press 308 pp. £55 I thought I knew - or at least knew of - most leading contemporary historians of Anglo-Jewry, but the author of this book, Michael Clark, was new to me. I quickly discovered why, as he reveals in his preface that he is not Jewish. Nevertheless, he has produced a masterful survey of the Anglo-Jewish community during a momentous period in its development from which modern British society with its huge influx of immigrants can learn a number of lessons. If he is not Jewish, why did Clark decide to examine this period? His preface again provides the answer. From his undergraduate days, he writes, he had been interested in the notions of identity and minority-majority relationships, toleration and persecution, acculturation and integration, and cultural choice. Anglo-Jewry of the period of the book provides detailed studies of all these themes. Some 200 years before emancipation, Jews had been living in England in relatively small numbers, having been readmitted in 1656 following their expulsion in 1290. But it took until 1833 before the first Jew was admitted to the Bar and two more years before they gained the vote. But the big turning-point came in 1858 when Lionel de Rothschild became the first professing Jewish member of Parliament - what Clark describes as "the culmination of Anglo-Jewish emancipation." He was quickly followed by a number of others, all from the wealthy elite of the community. Were they "Jewish MPs" or MPs who happened to be Jewish? They tended not to participate in debates on foreign policy and tried to ensure that there was no friction between their English and Jewish beliefs. Consequently, their Jewish allegiance, Clark notes, was "generally unproblematical." As for the wider Jewish community, its central organization was - and still is - the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Clark devotes a great deal of space to an examination of its role and his conclusions are not always complimentary. Its greatest asset in the 19th century was its long-serving president, Sir Moses Montefiore. However, he often used his influence and international prestige to act independently of the board, which therefore did not gain any resulting credit. Nevertheless the board, together with the Chief Rabbinate, acted as a unifying force, but on the other hand tended to be a "reactive force," a criticism still leveled at it. On the religious front, the formation of the United Synagogue - a London-based Orthodox body - provided the community with a powerful structure. Its biggest threat, however, came not from its Christian brethren but from the emergence of the Reform movement, one of whose innovations was the introduction of a weekly Shabbat sermon, reflecting the practice in Protestant services. This was seen as an "attempt to refashion Judaism in the Protestant mold." Orthodox Jewry was also influenced by its Christian neighbors, the result of which was the creation of what has become known as "minhag Anglia." So much for its internal development but how did Anglo-Jewry interface with its brethren overseas? Clark concludes that "modern and Anglicized Jews held their Palestinian brethren in poor regard and while the concept of a return to the Holy Land was never eliminated from the prayer book, it never formed a serious movement in those early days of emancipation. They were in the main uninterested or hostile... towards the rise of political Zionism." The greater external influence, however, was the mass immigration of East European Jews. The Jewish Chronicle, which Clark frequently quotes as a source of contemporary opinion, wrote somewhat uncharitably in 1884: "The Russian Jew is among us, but not of us. His dress, his food, his habits, his speech, his mode of prayer are as near as possible here what they were in the half-civilized village in which he was born." Most were impoverished working-class, while native Anglo-Jewry still remained dominated by its wealthy elite, mixing with royalty and aristocracy. The period under review was "a time of central importance in defining the modern existence of Anglo-Jewry" and Clark, with a non-Jew's objective approach, has highlighted all the advantages and disadvantages that emancipation brought. Anglo-Jewry has come a long way since then, with the election of numerous Jewish MPs and cabinet members hardly meriting a headline - even though the recent election of the first Jewish Speaker of the House of Commons did receive front-page treatment in The Jerusalem Post. More recent waves of immigration, notably from Asia, are following suit. Some ethnic groups, for example, have tried to form central organizations on the lines of the Board of Deputies, and the number of MPs from ethnic backgrounds increases at every election. Meanwhile, minhag Anglia survives. Before making aliya seven years ago, the reviewer was deputy editor of the London-based Jewish Chronicle.