Review: Broadening Jewish History

A collection of essays on the social history of British Jews is a milestone on the road to defining an elusive concept


Ring of confidence: 18th-19th century Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza

Ring of confidence: 18th-19th century Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza

By Todd M Endelman
The Littman Library, £39.50

Professor Todd Endelman, who teaches modern Jewish history at the University of Michigan, is one of the world's leading authorities on the history of European and specifically of British Jewry, on which he has authored three superb monographs and scores of scholarly articles. In this collection, he brings together 14 of his essays, most related the history of the Jews in England and all addressing the overarching theme of the volume, namely the "social" history of "ordinary" Jews.

These words - "social" and "ordinary" - beg many questions. Social history came of age in the third quarter of the 20th century in reaction to political history (centred on the deeds and misdeeds of politicians), diplomatic history (centred on the machinations of diplomats) and economic history (centred on national economies in the abstract).

Social history does not deal with elites - the few - but with the many, whose history is much more difficult to recount since, by definition, the many leave no institutional record and precious few memoirs. Until the advent of social history, those who wrote about the Jews had concentrated largely on institutions and elites. What social historians, including Professor Endelman, have done is shift the focus on to "ordinary" Jews.

But what is an "ordinary" Jew? Reading the essays in this volume one soon realises that there is no such entity. The most enjoyable chapter reproduces a study of Jacob Rey - "Jew" King - a scoundrel of a moneylender who, as Endelman reminds us, "flourished in the freewheeling atmosphere of late Georgian London." Lending to "dissolute womanisers and compulsive gamblers," Rey's extraordinary career does indeed have much to tell us about the seamier side of life in the reign of George III. Rey was nothing if not ambitious. He married (apparently) into the landed aristocracy and dabbled in radical politics. But he never attempted to hide his Jewish identity.

When he died in self-imposed exile in Florence, in 1823, he left money for a memorial prayer to be said for him annually at the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue in Bevis Marks.

Rey was no "ordinary" Jew. Neither was Benjamin Disraeli, the subject of two of the essays. However, the careers of both shed light on what Endelman brilliantly characterises as the "complex, multidimensional, messy process" by which Jewish people entered the mainstream of British society: first emancipation, then acculturation, then secularisation and finally integration.

Complex, because the process was far from linear. Multidimensional not least because the host society could be tolerant and intolerant at the same time. And messy because - certainly in Great Britain -- the state took a back seat, legislating only when the outcome was guaranteed.

Take the right to vote. Legally no British Jew could vote in a parliamentary election until 1835. But the Liverpool poll book for the general election of 1832 records the votes of the local rabbi, Asher Ansell. Since there was then no secret ballot we must presume that the Merseyside election officials turned a blind eye. The party apparatchiks - who could easily have exploited Ansell's participation to have the Liverpool election result quashed - certainly did so.

This volume is subtitled: "Towards a Social History of Ordinary Jews" thereby charting directions others must take if such social histories are ever to be written. The raw material is certainly there, but discovering its location and divining its meaning are no easy tasks. But Endleman has provided a guidebook and a manual.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

    Last updated: 1:46pm, April 29 2011