Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newman
for a conference at University College, London,
convened on 6 July 1975 by the
Jewish Historical Society of England
Page created: 11 December 2016
THE OLD AND THE NEW IN LOCAL JEWISH HISTORY
by L. P. Gartner
(By hovering your mouse cursor over the superscript footnote number in the text,
Almost a century ago Baron L. Benas of Liverpool admitted to feeling a little troubled because there was "something very unromantic in the origin of most of our Anglo-Jewish communities". They were not "founded by martyrs, exiles, and those who had bled for their faith". Wandering peddlers, who were no true substitute for refugee Marranos, only implanted "a kind of monotony it the early history of our English provincial communities". London had its Marranos even from the time of Henry VIII. In the Provinces, alas, "first comes a substratum of Germans and Poles, who pioneer the way into town as hawkers, pedlars, or watchmakers" -- humdrum beginnings. German and Polish Jews had in fact "bled for their faith" centuries before Benas wrote. Their fate was massacre and dreary suffering, rather than the Shakespearean tragedy of Spanish Jewry's downfall. Beans observed that the early Germans and Poles settled down in the provincial towns and raised families. "A superior stratum of newcomers"1. arrived somewhat later. Manchester, not distant from his native Liverpool, did not exactly fit the scheme, however: "a motley crowd of Jews of divergent trade interests and religious opinions congregate in Manchester from all parts of the world. But, wonder of wonders, the mystic word 'Jew' unites them as if by some invisible bond ..."2.
One founder of a Provincial community may be allowed to speak for himself. In 1900 London-born John Jacobs, dwelling at the age of eighty-four in the Joel Emanuel Almshouses in London, recalled his boyhood in Sheffield. During the 1820s his was the sole Jewish family in Sheffield, but a shochet was their boarder. They had regular Sabbath services, because "on Friday Mother always told us to look out for Jewish travellers, and bring them home, so that we were never without Minyan".3. During Sheffield's pre-railroad years, which lasted until 1845, six coaches journeyed daily from Sheffield to London, and the coach would stop at the Bull Inn, Aldgate, close by the Jewish streets of London.4. Still earlier, Birmingham was "the centre or head-quarters of many pedlars ... they came to replenish their stocks, and hither too they gathered at the great festivals of Passover and Rosh Hashanah" to be with other Jews.5.
One is reminded of Henri Pirenne's famous construct of the origins of medieval towns: wandering merchants find shelter for the winter within castle walls, or just outside them. The shelter becomes a base, and ultimately a permanent home, more merchants settle there, and a recognizeable town emerges which demands privileges from the lord of the castle. Although it has undergone much correction, the Pirenne thesis may serve for analogy. To Birmingham came Jewish peddlers for supplies and Jewish fellowship. A single hospitable Jewish family, which probably derived income from doing it, encouraged Jewish peddlers to make their way to Sheffield after a hard week of tramping the countryside. Would not some of them have in time wearied of lengthy, bone-rattling coach trips back to London, and settled down in Sheffield and Birmingham?6.
The beginnings innocently recalled by the aged John Jacobs are applicable to other towns, but not to all of them. Twenty years after the Sheffield shochet supplied its two or three Jewish families, there were still only ten or twelve Jewish families in Leeds, by then the seventh largest city in England. There was "great difficulty" in Leeds to form a minyan during the early 1860's. Leeds Jewry was to be a community almost entirely of Russian and Polish immigrants connected with the clothing industry, and it remained insignificant before the 1870's.7. Leeds' late start did not prevent it from becoming second in size among Provincial communities by 1900.
In the later 19th century Jewish communities no longer begin with country peddlers, in the age of fast trains and an extensive retail network. After 1850 the first arrivals in communities were likely to be shopkeepers, not peddlers. Thus, the brothers Lazareck, after years in the Australian goldfields, came about 1857 to Aldershot, where a large Army base was developing. Two other Jewish families arrived with them. Joseph Lazareck became a successful businessman and local notable, but when he died in 1900 the civilian Jewish population of Aldershot numbered no more than 50 civilians.8. After 1850 most of the vast increase in Jewish population was contained within the largest cities, but new communities did also arise. H. Reuben Davidson reported in 1900 that he had lived in Barrow-in-Furness nine years, "and there are only half-a-dozen Jews as yet settled here", who had come during the preceding three years. "As soon as four more Jews settle hero, we intend having a congregation and to engage a Shochet."9. As he walked in a street of Dudley, Henry A. Phillips wrote, he was stopped and asked whether he was a Jew. His yes elicited the request to help make a minyan. "No one would credit that such a thing is possible in a town with a population standing at nearly 60,000 ... "10. The very issue of the Jewish Chronicle which reported this brought word from Brynmawr, one of "the smaller congregations which have of late sprung up in South Wales'', that a younger generation was growing up and plans were being made for a proper synagogue to replace the room in a house.11. Seven men founded the Blackpool congregation in 1898, and in 1900, when there were fourteen members,_ they consecrated a synagogue.12. The Reading Jewish community was probably the only one whose growth was directly encouraged by the London Jewish elite. The Reading Jews, the first of whom came there in 1887, were East End immigrant workmen. The development of Reading Jewish communal life, it was hoped, would draw Jews thither and decrease East End congestion. It did not happen that way, but leaders of native Jewry contributed to build the Reading synagogue and assisted that community with its other needs.13. To sum up, for 1851 Dr. Lipman has counted thirty-three functioning congregations in thirty English towns, two in Wales and four more for the rest of the United Kingdom.14. In 1900, forty-nine places reported holding High Holiday services.15. The Jewish Year Book of 1902 identified 84 places of Jewish settlement in the United Kingdom.
Now this data is worthwhile, I believe, and these anecdotes are interesting, I hope. It is valuable to see wherever possible the actual emergence of a Jewish community. Much is also to be learned about the reasons communities flourished somewhere and did not flourish elsewhere.
When one ranks the cities of the United Kingdom by population in each census, and then does likewise for the Jewish communities, important differences will appear between the two rankings. All these phenomena invite explanation. Brave starts do not assure flourishing communal futures, and Jewish communities, like cities and nations, do decline. 'A great deal has yet to be written of the decline and fall of once considerable congregations like Falmouth in the West, and Ipswich in the East. The fact, too, that this synagogal decay has gone on upon the fringe of these islands -- on the extreme West and extreme East -- and that, side by side, the rise of great industrial centres in the North and the Midlands has created great Jewish congregations in these parts, suggests useful consideration of the sources of synagogal decline and the inevitable relationship between commercial and communal conditions."16.
The rise and flourishing of Provincial Jewry, even with the disappearance of some early centres, thus directs attention to the history of individual communities within their particular urban environment. As historians of the Jews we have to be clear what it is we consider our business to study within each of the eighty- four places. Are we concerned mainly with the Jewish institutions, the synagogues, schools, philanthropies, and other associations and what they did? Shall we concentrate on prominent individuals or families, those in whom we may see the embodiment of the hopes of Jewish emancipation? Will it be our interest to regard the Jews, a distinct group, as the object of a group biography covering every possible aspect of their lives? These questions require in their turn, some clarity about what a community is, and what is its relation to urban history.
Urban history is a species of local history. Local history deals with any locus, any place, including a village or some portion of the countryside, as has been done in distinguished manner by Professor W. G. Hoskins. I see no inherent demarcation of what is local in local history other than what is required by its nature, which I believe is to study very closely some given area and its people. In the case of urban history that area is a city. Nor is it easy to define a city: Manchester was governed until 1838 as a medieval borough, while London was not governed at all as London before 1888. The problem of delimiting American cities with the suburbs which lie across their formal boundaries is well known, and this problem now exists in many large cities of the Western world. In fixing the true boundaries of an urban area we do have the aid of the census takers, with their "conurbations" in the United Kingdom and "standard metropolitan statistical areas" in the United States. The historian of urban Jewish communities must also bear in mind that today there are practically no Jews dwelling within the boundaries of Cleveland, Newark, Detroit, or Washington; all are in the suburbs, and the process is far advanced in quite a few other cities. Most urban historians, however, take their city dwellers where they find them, that is, in places which possess the characteristics of urban society, however defined. Formal boundaries are relegated more or less to footnotes, since the historians' interests differ from those of the political scientists who are more concerned with governmental jurisdictions.
Reading recent urban historiography, conversing with urban historians, and scrutinizing some published shop talk, one acquires a feel for what interests them.17. They are extremely interested in social classes, which they must labour to define and identify, and in existing social groups, and in changes taking place within the composition of these groups. Governing elites are also being examined from this perspective. Very characteristic of urban history today is the attention being given to those on the bottom or near it. Urban historians today are conspicuously occupied with the physical basis of city life, the houses and streets, railways and schools, roads and sewers. Quite a few show fine historic and aesthetic sensitivity to the architecture and topography and to the very mood of city life. Urban historians are not economic historians, so that what interests them about urban economic activity is its connection with the lives of the people who are involved in it, between factories and workshops and those who live under the smoke-stacks or sleep in the room where they work. City government commands their attention, particularly its record in comprehending and coping with the problems of the city's life. All in all, urban historiography is directed inward, dealing with the city unto itself.18. There is some doubt whether local expressions of wider movements are truly urban history. Thus the Industrial Revolution in Sheffield, Zionism in Liverpool, or Chartism in Manchester, all of undeniable interest and importance, are not the focus of urban historians' interests.
Urban society and the Jewish community within urban society: these two must be kept analytically distinct. Until World War I approximately, immigrant Jews in English cities were conspicuous in neighbourhoods, which were generally just off downtown, with their own language, modes of dress, special occupations, and religious ways. Many Jews who were not immigrants continued to live there. Some of this concentration endured approximately until World War II. In our day, however, we have to speak of a group bearing little outward distinctiveness, blending quite readily with the urban population. The Jews specialize economically, but in so highly urbanized and industrialized a land as Great Britain this is not very conspicuous, except perhaps when one of their specialties falls upon evil days. What generally distinguishes the Jews, therefore, is that on one hand they participate extensively in economic, political, and cultural life while they retain social separateness and maintain substantial independent, voluntarily supported institutions of their own. It is not law but a feeling, a sense of connection, which comes to expression in founding and maintaining these institutions which outwardly express the existence of a Jewish community. Institutions themselves, and their activities, are not identical with the Jewish community. Baron Benas spoke long ago of "the mystic word 'Jew' [which] unites them as if by some 'invisible bond' ..." Slightly demystified -- I wonder whether it can ever be utterly demystified -- the bond is an effective network of social communication. A society, however, including an urban society, is formed by working together and the consequent exchange of goods and services. Obviously it is possible to belong to several communities: the Jewish, neighbours on a street, musicians, old boys of some school. But one's community par excellence is that with which social communication is the most wide-ranging and intensive. The history of a community is in the first place the history of the people who by conscious, or sometimes semi-conscious, choice compose it, and who exchange quantities of what social scientists call "information". The history of a community is also the history of the tangible institutions which are the focus of much of this social communication. In Victorian England every Jew belonged to the urban society in which he dwelled and made his living. The extent to which he shared in Jewish social communication decided how much he was also in the Jewish community. Some Jews reduced or virtually eliminated such communication, and presently ceased formally to be Jews. I believe that these distinctions and definitions will assist us to understand the Provincial Jewish scene in Victorian England.
Around the middle of the 19th century the Jewish demographic revolution in the Provinces was completed. The southwest and southeast, the seaport towns of Devon and Cornwall, lost most of their Jews.19. We are not really sure where they went. Emigration to America during this period was extensive, while migration within England itself was generally short-range.20. Benas' description of early Liverpool Jewry as people who had originally come to embark for America but instead remained does seem exaggerated, even though Benas must have known cases.21. Provincial Anglo-Jewry had been widely scattered as could be expected of people who peddled far and wide and purveyed to ships and their crews in many ports during the age of sailing ships. There were also small merchant craftsmen like watchmakers and silversmiths. These occupations took them deep into rural, traditional, Christian England, where they had little but business relations. Their existence was Jewish, with little admixture from the society in which they drew their livelihoods. Their synagogues were of course what is now called Orthodox, and had the informal, indecorous, clubby atmosphere, seasoned with open quarrels, suiting men who did business with equally rough and ready informality, and had no Christian religious models in back of their mind. Such was the first Anglo-Jewry of the Provinces. It reached a peak early in the 19th century and declined from the 1830s. By 1900 there was only a dim remembrance of "the little known, but important body of native English Jews of the middle class".22.
During the 1840s what we may call the second Anglo-Jewry of the Provinces emerged in the great Midlands cities. The new Provincial Jews included educated Germans who came from the rapidly increasing ranks of Germanized Jews. They helped to open Central and Eastern Europe to British industrial production, and their success, besides of course enriching them, enlarged such industries as Nottingham lace and Bradford woollens.23. They set up commercial firms in Manchester, Liverpool, and elsewhere, where they joined sons of earlier Provincial Jews who seem to have moved there. Not all the German Jewish immigrants remained Jews, however. Defections in the small Jewish community of Nottingham were comparatively numerous, for example. Louis Heymann and some others abandoned Judaism and joined the social and business leaders of the town who worshipped at the Unitarian Church. Heymann was a civic leader and also served as mayor.24. On the other hand, Jacob Weinberg, who came from Hamburg to Nottingham in 1850, was meticulously observant, shutting his firm of Simon, May and Co. on Sabbaths and Jewish festivals. Weinberg left the local congregation and kept a more Orthodox minyan of his own.25. Bradford's little community of German Jews established their own Reform congregation which went its quiet way almost isolated from Anglo-Jewry. Sons of these Jews, such as Alfred Zimmern and William Rothenstein, left the Jewish community. Manchester Jewry also lost many of the new German settlers. They "held themselves completely aloof from all congregational matters as distinct from educational ..."26. Moreover, they "did not adhere strictly to the rites nor eventually to the doctrines of our holy faith", and as a result "it is not so much wondered at that many adherents were lost to Judaism ... many secessions to Christianity took place, and there are not a few wealthy [mercantile] houses" which bore their names.27. Membership in the English commercial classes, then at the summit of their world supremacy, was easily acquired, and apostasy in favour of the Dissenting churches and middle-class respectability was not at all unthinkable.28. It seems clear that Judaism did not readily retain the loyalty of the second Anglo-Jewry of the Provinces.
Apostasy among the new-style businessmen who were the backbone of Jewish life in Western Europe and America, suggests that a closer look ought to be paid to Jewish life in the Provinces. Mid-19th century synagogues knew serious strife. Later accounts mention it as casually as possible, and prefer to muffle it under a blanket of Jewish affability. But strife is instructive to the historian. The pleasure which is often taken in synagogue factions and quarrels may interest a psychologist, while the historian may find irate words and bellicose acts illuminating deep divergences and important social cleavages. Let us for once take these synagogue conflicts as seriously as their participants once did, if for different reasons. We know of conflicts in what were then the three main Provincial communities, Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingnam. As early as 1828, the Birmingham congregation sought to deal with a decidedly new and unsettling phenomenon, Jews who kept their businesses open on the Sabbath, by a definitely traditional means, denying them the honour of being called to the Torah reading (aliyot). Isaac L. Goldsmid mediated a settlement. Yet synagogue government remained a dangerous irritant. The veterans were "free members" and as such monopolized control. The newer men who were thus excluded were perhaps wealthier. The conflict is in some ways a miniature of the 19th century British conflict and ultimate accommodation between vested privilege and the new wealth. Perhaps the new middle class of the synagogues sensed this parallel, and this awareness lent their struggle some of its vehemence. The "free members" functioned without rabbinic intervention -- the Chief Rabbi was far away in London, and local officiants were wholly subordinate. The "very large and wealthy body of German Jews" who came to Manchester found the Old Hebrew Congregation an indecorous, unattractive place, and its oligarchy of "free members" intolerable. A New Congregation existed in Manchester from 1840, worshipping in rented quarters and raising funds for a building, until the abolition of "free membership" in the Old Synagogue brought them back in 1851.29. That stormy petrel of Provincial Judaism, Solomon Schiller-Szinessy,30. was the catalyst of a Reform breakaway which occurred in 1849. The Manchester Congregation of British Jews, established in 1856, was Reform Judaism at its mildest. Its chronicler merely asserts that "the congregation wished to worship decorously, intelligibly, and to the accompaniment of a choir and organ".31. The Birmingham congregation was again embattled during the 1850s as "free members" levied assessments based upon their private estimate of members' incomes. Appeals from the assessments they imposed brought personal affairs to public scrutiny. It was a communal system with deep historic roots, but utterly opposed to 19th century England's economic ethos of impersonal, private financial relationships. As in Manchester, aggrieved members broke away in 1853 and were building their own synagogue until they were induced to return more or less on their own terms.32. Liverpool underwent its secession in 1835, here too on account of "the tyranny which small country communities knew so well how to wield ...".33. Hope Place Synagogue emerged from the refusal to admit new "free members". Reform Judaism was not the issue in the three communities, but rather the assertion of equality and individualism over antiquated restraints. This struggle was ardently waged in Victorian Lancashire generally. Quite likely the old "free members" found the newcomers brusque, cocksure, and demanding, careless about the Sabbath, casual with the dietary laws. Such was the rising generation who made the second Provincial Anglo-Jewry. Benas described them as "the younger Jewish men and women who felt themselves English, and their sympathies and their tastes went entirely with the land of their birth". Hostile to the Judaism of their parents they would "not pause to consider that it was less the religion of their fathers than their German and Polish habits and errors of diction that required to be improved". Some of them emigrated to the Colonies and returned "like the Vandals of old" to Judaism.
Benas placed those who remained at home in three camps. Liverpool Jewry had its old-line stalwarts, and opposite them those "who disliked everything Jewish, and merely remained in its fold by reason of it being the only circle in which they could rise to any importance". A third element, Benas reported sympathetically, desired moderate, conservative change. "They were not only Jews by faith, but they took pains to identify themselves with the Jewish cause generally", especially with the charity reform in which their community preceded London.34. Perhaps it was due to the moderate but vigorous religious leadership which Liverpool Jewry enjoyed during its troubled 1840s, and the persuasive influence of the monthly Cup of Salvation which appeared in 1846-1847, that Reform failed to emerge. The Old Hebrew Congregation recouped the losses of the Hope Place secession, "by the influx into town of gentlemen holding important and influential positions in the mercantile world, [which] gave a very superior tone to the elder synagogue".35. This element of prosperous members enabled it to erect the Princes Road Synagogue in 1874, the most impressive synagogue of 19th century England. These men brought to Jewish communal business "method, a discipline, a certain business-like air", thanks to their involvement in "local matters not immediately concerning their own sect".36. Birmingham Jews had less education and fewer rich men. There was rather "a very large class of men well-to-do, fairly educated, and possessed of sound shrewd sense", capable of conducting communal affairs".37. Lacking needed information, may we at least guess that Birmingham shopkeepers are being compared with Liverpool merchants and shippers? Manchester, we learn from the same account, was a sad story. Its 7,000 to 8,000 Jews were "a disunited, segregated mass", and their "immense influence, wealth, and station" as individuals failed to register as a community.38. As the century closed, two Manchester ministers lamented "the want of a powerful man who would be able at all times to represent Jewish interests not only outside the community but would at the same time command a strong controlling influence within the community".39. London had Rothschild and the Chief Rabbi, but whom did the well-knit Birmingham and Liverpool communities possess?
These observations are based on a very limited range of sources. But it does appear that during the age of Peel and Cobden, when Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League were the great issues in English politics, the Jewish communities in the Provinces found their own regime sharply challenged. Who challenged it? They were the new generation of consciously English Jews, following with concern Jewish emancipations's Parliamentary progress, proud to be of England's commercial classes who dominated world trade. A limited but significant number of German Jews joined them. Confident in the rational, systematic, punctual conduct of their affairs and of their very lives, imbued with the virtues of the successful businessman, they wanted Jewish communal and religious institutions to possess the same virtues. How did the Provincial communities receive the new generation and the requirements which their presence in the Jewish community implied? That appears to differ from town to town. In general, however, the issue was not Reform Judaism but rather communal governance and external style. Victorian Orthodoxy and Victorian Reform really did not differ so much outwardly.
We have to consider such questions against the larger question, already posed, how the history of an urban community is to be written. What should it include? Here, we have run the social phenomena alongside the religious and have seen that they illuminate each other. We may take as a further example the synagogue, the most historic and representative of Jewish institutions. It is recognized that even the hundreds of synagogues which use the identical liturgy and profess the same beliefs are otherwise extremely different. The difference will dwell not only in the outward design but also in the manner of receiving a new face, or in the atmosphere of solemn restraint or lively discourse with God and the man on the same bench. Nor are the differences only on the surface. The salience or the interpretation of common beliefs will differ, such as Messianic redemption as professed, say, in Great Garden Street and in Hampstead around 1900. These provide clues to matters of interest to historians and social scientists: just who are the people attending that synagogue? How do they make their living? How much money do they have and how long do they have it? How far back in England do they reach and where did they or their forebears come from? How much education and Jewish learning do they possess? In practically every synagogue worthy of the name these are subjects of sage discussion.40. That is, the key to understanding the milieu, the setting, of a synagogue is to know all about its people. So it is with a Jewish club, a Jewish school, and with those who give to or receive from a Jewish charity. Always, to know an institution or a community requires knowing the people who were in it. Certainly the synagogue rifts of mid-19th century Provincial Jewry would hardly seem different from quarrels practically anywhere, without attention being given to their social bearings. Then they become meaningful indeed. Such a procedure of analysis would be profitably followed for other movements; Yonathan Shapiro has provided an impressive study of American. Zionism by this method.41.
While it may readily be agreed that Jewish institutions are best studied from the outside as well as the inside, there is another aspect where disagreement is likelier. A great many Jews maintain minimal ties with the Jewish community, with little if any Jewish social communication. Sometimes important in commerce or politics or cultural life, they have chosen to be on the outer margin of.the Jewish community, and in their personal mode of life and belief, and in what they do with their time and money, they show little if any Jewish connection. They are Jews in name. What place if any shall they have in the Jewish history of their town? I believe that to grasp the place of Jews in an urban society we are obliged to take in all Jews. The Jews form a distinct group, of course not the only distinct group, within urban society. As long as Jews live in an emancipated society, they will also take part as individuals in its affairs; however, to what extent and with what relationship to Jewish communal affairs? This varies not only from person to person, but -- in the United States -- from community to community. One supposes this will prove the case also in England.
My conviction may emerge from this discussion, that the best approach to local Jewish history is what may be called the social-communal.42. To understand the structure of the Jewish community and its inner communications we must know the social and cultural "profile" of those who belong, and the intensity of their connection with it. All we learn about the Jewish community will in turn explain a great deal about those who are involved in it. Properly analyzed the internal conflicts of which we have spoken are apt to inform us about much more than personal dislikes and institutional rivalries and halakhic disputes.
There are certainly other themes and methods in Jewish Meal history. What is called the new social history can do valuable work in defining and analyzing Jewish social strata, where possible in comparison with other groups within the urban society. The lower, generally inarticulate classes in Jewish communities might also be profitably studied, especially since Jews of the lacer or any class are rarely inarticulate and sources can be gotten. To trace Jewish families through several generations in one city appears to me a likely way of adequately answering perennial questions about Jewish birth rate, social and geographic mobility, marriage and inter-marriage, and the continuity of Jewish identity in general. Yet it remains my own conviction that of the ways to write the history of a local Jewish community, the method of playing in constantly intersecting lines the social and economic with the communal and religious, is the best when a single choice is to be made. I have attempted to illustrate a few of its possibilities. Nothing would be more interesting than two well-wrought histories of one Jewish community, each written from a different approach. Yet in the present condition of Jewish local history in England we had better forego this luxury in favour of one well-wrought history per community. Perhaps some will be started here.
Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain - List of Contents
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