Reinventing ourselves, throughout the generations

By Trudy Gold, August 9, 2012

How to define Jewishness? When Manassah Ben Israel petitioned for the readmission of the Jews to England in 1655 he referred to the Jewish Nation. In debates on emancipation during the 19th century, the term was Jewish Race. After emancipation, most Jews regarded themselves as Jewish citizens of the countries in which they lived. In this country, every new wave of immigrants tried to anglicise. We can see this from the way that the major communal institutions imitated English society. The Board of Deputies replicated parliament and the United Synagogue mirrored the structure of the Church of England. Only for the religious was identity a certainty.

Today, London is the multi-cultural capital of the world and we are one of many groups in Britain. Our identity is further complicated by the impact of the Shoah and the establishment of the state of Israel.

The last census recorded the self-identifying Jewish community at 292,000. It has cut itself in half since 1945, which sounds like catastrophe, but the reality is more nuanced. The strictly Orthodox make up nine per cent of that and, last year, 50 per cent of Jewish births were in their community. Since the late 1970s there has been a renaissance in all aspects of Jewish culture.

Seventy per cent of Jewish children attend Jewish schools. Formal or informal Jewish education and cultural centres such as the London Jewish Cultural Centre flourish. There are Jewish film festivals, art galleries and music societies. Limmud is wildly successful. Universities now offer Jewish studies - unheard of 40 years ago.

Imagine a middle-class Jewish family, third-generation immigrants. They have four children. They are traditional rather than religious but decide to send their children to a Jewish primary school because of its excellent reputation, a fear of the state sector and to preserve the great inheritance.

The eldest progresses to yeshivah and marries into a religious family; he is more devout than his parents. The second wins a bursary to a day public school and mixes mainly with Jewish boys. He goes on Israel tour, becomes a Zionist, makes aliyah and marries a Sephardi girl.

The third is the family genius. He attends an academic English day school in London, paid for by his grandparents. He plays rugby on Shabbat and achieves a first at Cambridge, where he mixes mainly with the gentile world. He settles in Notting Hill with his non-Jewish wife. He reads the Guardian. The fourth and youngest daughter leaves her Jewish school, goes into the family business and marries the son of her parents' close friends. She joins the local synagogue.

They still congregate at Pesach where "next year in Jerusalem" is interpreted differently by all. The Israeli grandchildren play with the "Anglo" cousins. And so the "longest history" goes on.

Trudy Gold is executive director of education and Holocaust studies at the LJCC. She will speak at ‘From Poland to Polo in Three Generations?’ a seminar on identity at the LJCC from August 20 to 23. To book, call 020 8457 5000

Last updated: 10:38am, August 10 2012