Anglo-Jewry's special legacy

By Alison Fisch Katz, April 15, 2011
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I recently attended two funerals; one in Jerusalem and the other in Zichron Ya'akov. Both of the deceased were members of my family who had died on the same day, and both were brought on the same El Al flight from Heathrow to Ben Gurion for burial in Israel by their next of kin. My first cousin, Gillian Grosberg Braunold, and my second cousin, Allison Swift Kanter, sat next to each other on the flight. Gillian was mourning the passing of her husband, Max Braunold, and Allison, her father Lionel Swift.

I was born and bred in Leeds, studied at Carmel College and came on aliyah at the age of 21 - over 25 years ago. I have, at times, felt somewhat removed from my English roots. But, at those funerals, almost everyone I can think of who had populated my younger years passed before my eyes.

Lionel and Max were a generation apart and so I encountered people from two generations - my parents' and my own. At Max's, I met a huge contingent of members of English Bnei Akiva, most of whom now live in Israel. I met old friends with whom I studied at Bar Ilan University, my madrichim from Bnei Akiva from when I was about 10 years old and, along with people from Leeds, I met some neighbours from Ra'anana whom I did not know had a connection to the family.

At Max's service, we cried for a man whose contribution ended too early. At Lionel's we sighed for an era passed - for a generation who had to claw their way up through the echelons of English society and became successful at its highest levels. Most of all, it struck me what a good job English Jewry has done.

Both men understood that Judaism is much more than rules

Not long ago, I received some papers belonging to my late grandfather, Rabbi Dr S Fisch of Leeds. Some of his writings berate the rampant assimilation among English Jews back in the 1930s. In others, he laments the rise of antisemitism and urges his congregation to turn to Judaism for comfort rather than away from it. But I can with confidence respond to him that, despite reduction from a Jewish population of 450,000 Jews in England in the mid 1980s, when I left England, to the current 250,000, what I noticed at the funerals was testimony to the good spiritual health of the communities that he and his contemporaries founded. They still flourish in the face of the stresses of population decline, multiculturalism and a perceived renewal of anti-Jewish feeling in Britain and throughout Europe.

This special type of allegiance goes with other British qualities - diplomacy, courtesy, quiet action, fair play. But the equally important cultural asset that Anglo-Jewry has imbibed is that peculiar blend of modest wit and intellectual tolerance. The eulogies at both funerals were far from flamboyant yet displayed a curious mix of verbal dexterity and decorum. UK Jews have learned the value of "divide and conquer" managing to uphold a commitment to Judaism at the same time as a pride in British culture, each somehow strengthening rather than weakening the other.

Did my grandfather need to worry about the long-term effects of assimilation and anti-Semitism? Absolutely. Was his anxiety about the future of his people justified? Yes. Yet this angst seems to wane when you suddenly find yourself within a large gathering singing in unison, in honour of the injunction to accompany the dead, and marvelling at the continued connectedness of this remarkable group of Anglo-Jewish descent.

Lionel and Max both understood that their Judaism meant much more than a set of rules for the individual. The legacy they received and which they have passed on is much more about that individual's place in the wider community and the Jewish people as a whole. Their sad passing reinforces the strength of tradition from which they, I, my children and all those other English Jews I re-encountered at their funerals spring.

Both Lionel Swift and Max Braunold represent the best of English Jewry: its work ethic, its decency, its tradition and its sense of responsibility to the wider community. And it is this that reminds me how proud I am to call myself an English Jew.".

Dr Alison Fisch Katz is a lecturer, documentary film scriptwriter and freelance journalist

    Last updated: 9:21am, April 15 2011