Whatever Happened To British Jewish Studies?

Good times in Jewish history


Tony Kushner and Hannah Ewence (Eds)
Vallentine Mitchell, £50

A half-century ago it would have been unthinkable to have embarked on an academic career in British-Jewish studies. Outside of the department of Hebrew at University College, London, virtually the only established university posts in this field were located in departments of theology.

True, Cecil Roth's exceptional readership in post-biblical Jewish studies had been established at Oxford in 1939. But, as Professor Kushner and Dr Ewence remind us, Roth had had this position specially created for him (on the initiative of Chief Rabbi Hertz, supported by Canon Professor Herbert Danby, translator of the Mishnah into English). The truth was that Roth never wished to specialise in this field - his doctorate was in Italian Renaissance history - and that it was only after his private acknowledgement that the closed world of Italian studies in British universities was controlled by persons not very well disposed towards Jews that he turned to Jewish history.

The truth also was that Roth operated very much at the margin of Oxford's donnish society: he was never elected to a college fellowship. We might also note (Kushner and Ewence do not) that Lionel Kochan, the first holder (1969) of the Bearsted Readership in Jewish history at Warwick was actually trained in modern languages and Soviet studies, and that Vivian Lipman, though indeed a Roth protégé, never held a permanent university post.

Cecil Roth operated very much on Oxford's margins

How primitive this all seems today! There is scarcely a British university worthy of the name that does not offer students the opportunity to study some aspect of British-Jewish studies. While part of this expansion has been underwritten by Jewish philanthropists, much has not. The Parkes Institute and Library at the University of Southampton, housing the largest single collection of private archives relating to the history of the Jews in the UK, has benefited substantially from public funds and, in recent years, the Arts and Humanities Research Council has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to fund British-Jewish projects.

But how has all this contributed to our understanding of the Jewish encounter with British society, and of the British encounter with Jews? Here are 20 essays by acknowledged scholars upon an extraordinary range of themes from military service, and the early years of British television, to the writing of Anglo-Jewish cookery texts.

In a thought-provoking critique, Professor Todd Endelman sounds a note of caution. He persuasively argues that, while British-Jewish historiography appears in good health, its practitioners are relatively marginalised from Jewish-focused scholarship because they mostly tend to locate Jewish history within that of Britain, rather than within the wider history of the Jewish people.

Geoffrey Alderman is a JC columnist

    Last updated: 10:51am, January 27 2012