Review: The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History

A new - expensive - history of Anglo-Jewry has much to recommend it as well as some frustrating omissions

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 19, 2011
Unorthodox and omitted: Marianne Faithfull and Benjamin Perl (below)

Unorthodox and omitted: Marianne Faithfull and Benjamin Perl (below)

I do not envy the task of any editor who agrees to produce a one-volume "dictionary" of Anglo-Jewish history.

To begin with, there is a multitude of choices to be made. In respect of persons, who is a Jew? In respect of institutions (of which Anglo-Jewry has always had too many), which to leave out? In respect of themes, what precisely is a "Jewish" issue? The Palgrave volume is confined to the Anglo-Jewish world post-1656. It encompasses the living as well as the dead. The editors have adopted a sensible, non-halachic approach to the first of my questions, treating as Jewish anyone who has defined him or herself as Jewish, or has been so regarded by others. But they have made some odd choices as to whom to include and whom to omit.

As the volume's introduction itself makes clear, the singer Marianne Faithfull and celebrity Katie Price are both Jewish: yet there are no entries for them. Nor is there an entry for the late Victorian theatrical manager Morris Abrahams, for whom, after all, a place was found in the Oxford Companion to the Theatre (1972).

At the more Orthodox end of the spectrum some omissions are frankly startling: for example, the Stamford Hill politician Joe Lobenstein (four-time mayor of Hackney) and Benjamin Perl, who has built more Jewish schools in the UK than any other person living or dead.

By contrast, I noticed an entry for Harris Shoerats. Without wishing to be in any way disrespectful to the memory of this engaging, Ukrainian-born, leather worker who was Britain's oldest man when he died (aged 111) in 1984, the inclusion of anyone merely on account of their longevity seems to me a trifle eccentric.

In compiling the institutional entries, the editors and their co-contributors seem also to have erred on the side of imbalance. At just over one column, the space devoted to the United Synagogue does not do justice to its subject, while the half-column allotted to the Federation of Synagogues inevitably precludes any mention of its more controversial presidents - primarily the two Morries (Davis and Lederman), neither of whom has a separate entry in the volume.

These spatial decisions must be contrasted with, for example, the two-and-a-half columns devoted to the Judith Montefiore College. There is no entry for shechita (or for the umbrella defence body Shechita UK), or for Sunday trading - a national issue but with an important Jewish component. At just over nine lines, the entry for the Community Security Trust is plainly inadequate; nor is it acceptable merely declare to that it is "fronted" by Michael Whine. The CST has a publicly acknowledged chief executive, Richard Benson, and there are in fact some remarkably informative paragraphs on the CST at the Wikipedia website.

In his introduction, the editor-in-chief, Professor William D Rubinstein, asks rhetorically whether a second edition of the volume will ever appear. I hope very much that it will. For, in spite of its sins of omission and commission, the Palgrave dictionary is a work of considerable scholarship and (I suspect) a labour of love.

Any such publication is bound to contain errors. A new edition, perhaps as an e-book, can put these right - and hopefully bring the price within reach of the average Anglo-Jewish household.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

Last updated: 12:46pm, September 19 2011