Telling our story for 120 years and more

By Madelyn Travis, October 25, 2013
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One Saturday in 1916, two Jewish soldiers at Sluch Camp near Brecon in Wales were cleaning the mess tent after breakfast. When they had completed the job, a lieutenant inspected their handiwork. He was unimpressed. “You bloody Jews,” he berated them, ‘if I had my way with you I would make you go down on your knees to clean up, with me over you with a riding crop.”

The shocked and shaken young men recounted the incident to a fellow soldier, Laurence Marks. Later that day, when the order came from a more senior officer for Marks’s tent to be cleaned, he recalled his friends’ experience and retorted: “Major or no bloody major, we will not clean today; it is our Sabbath.”

Marks was arrested for his insubordination and sentenced to a week in jail. He immediately appealed to the major, asking: “What would you say, sir, if you were called ‘bloody Jews?’” When the lieutenant failed to deny his words, the major tore up the charge sheet and Marks was freed.

This story gives a clear example of the prejudice that many British-Jewish soldiers who fought for their country in World War I were subjected to by non-Jewish soldiers. Yet accounts such as this one could easily have been lost — and many, certainly, have been. This particular anecdote was preserved through the foresight of Marks’s grandson, David Jacobs, who interviewed Laurence Marks in the 1970s, when the approach to history began to change.

Anglo-Jewish history is not just about the great and the good, but about the pedlars and the pickpockets, too

Prior to that era, it had been told by men (and of course it most often still is), and schoolchildren learned about wars, kings and queens, and memorised facts and dates. The stories of ordinary women, children, minorities, the working classes, immigrants, political radicals, were widely perceived as unimportant or even distasteful and went untold. This was the environment in 1893, when the Jewish Historical Society of England was founded.

The Society was formed by the journalist Lucien Wolf, following an Anglo-Jewish historical exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall six years earlier. Although the exhibition itself was received enthusiastically, when the idea of a Jewish Historical Society of England was mooted it was met with a rather more lukewarm response.

In his inaugural presidential address, Wolf reminded members: “We were told that Anglo-Jewish history was a very small affair, that it was not likely to add much to the general history of our race, and that it would throw no light on the annals of our country.”

The reason for this scepticism, he explained, was the meagre contribution by the Anglo-Jewish community to wider Jewish history; indeed, the society’s intended focus on England was the subject of much debate. Wolf’s desire to concentrate on matters close to home won the day: the first volume of the society’s journal, Transactions, included papers on the crypto-Jews of England, Little St Hugh of Lincoln, and the debts and houses of the Jews of Hereford in 1290.

For many years, historians of Anglo-Jewry emphasised the positive contribution made by the Jews of England, sweeping contentious or potentially unflattering aspects of the community’s history under the carpet. Although the society was formed during the period of mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, many of the Anglo-Jewish elite distanced themselves from their poor, Yiddish-speaking brethren, and the immigrants’ perspective was absent from histories of the Jews of England for three-quarters of a century.

An ornate, gothic-lettered invitation to a formal dinner held in 1927 in honour of Wolf’s 70th birthday reveals the gulf between the historians and that of many other Jews in England at the time.

The Society’s council consisted of many of the community’s leading lights: Adler, Gollancz, Montefiore, Picciotto, Roth, Tuck, Zangwill and more — all of them, naturally, men. The food was lavish in an economy that was struggling even before the depression of the 1930s, and, with its French accent (saumon fumé, turbot bouilli), elegant. MPs were in attendance, and not all were Jewish, a sign of the standing in which Wolf, and perhaps the Society itself, was held.

Events such as this served to reinforce the then party line that the history of the Jews of England after readmission was a simple tale of effortless integration and social mobility. This in turn perpetuated the longstanding widespread view that because Anglo-Jewish history was not as turbulent as that of communities elsewhere in Europe, it was not as worthy of study.

Eventually, both notions were challenged. Beginning with the American-Jewish historian Lloyd Gartner in 1960, and then by others, among them a cohort of eminent British-Jewish historians, Anglo-Jewish history began to be told in new ways. The lid was lifted on intracommunal tensions, and the experiences of immigrants in the East End of London were investigated as part of a widening understanding of what constituted the history of Jews in Britain: one chapter in Todd Endelman’s The Jews of Britain: 1656 to 2000, for instance, is entitled Bankers, Brokers, Pedlars, Pickpockets.

The Jewish Historical Society of England has kept pace with these developments, collaborating with the London Transport Museum on an exhibition about the extension of the tube into the suburbs, in which the Jews of Golders Green featured heavily, and more recently, working with the Jews of Cardiff to produce an exhibition and book about their history, and to bring the project to London. With partnerships with historians in Wales, the England in the society’s name seems anachronistic: the Jewish Historical Society of Great Britain would be more appropriate for these times.

The organisation reaches its 120th anniversary at a time when the Jewish community is ever more confidently asserting its place in a Britain comprised of many cultural heritages, in a world in which it is possible to locate historical and family records on the internet, and in which technology has bridged geographical divides. Such developments enable individuals and communities to make new contacts as well as renewing old ones, and are of particular value for making connections between diaspora communities and between the diaspora and Israel. Technology offers increased opportunities not only to preserve our past for future generations, but for history to engage young people.

As a community, we could do more to embrace our own diversity, investing increasing effort into recovering and examining the histories of those beyond the mainstream, including people living outside Manchester and London. One way of making our history accessible is by forging closer links with organisations such as the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, with the aim of coming together in a Centre for British-Jewish history modelled on the one in New York.

Such a centre in Britain would make resources available centrally to a wide range of people, from academics to amateur genealogists and from the “just curious” to the many interested people with Jewish heritage. The Society reached out to these groups before its annual conference earlier this year, and as a result, the conference was full to capacity with over 200 delegates, many of whom had never before attended such an event.

As part of its new, more outward-facing approach, the Society aims to help organisations and individuals to discover, preserve and find repositories for diaries, letters, photographs, oral histories and other historical documents. Areas of focus could include the stories of Jewish suffragettes, and the Jews who served in World War I.

One such soldier was commander of the JFS company of the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Captain Mendel is referred to in a snippet in the Jewish Chronicle from August 7 1914, sending a cheery telegram as he leaves for service. But Mendel was not fighting for Britain: an enemy alien, he was conscripted into the Austrian army. What was his fate? Stories such as these are crying out to be told.

Yet not enough stories of ordinary Jews are accessible to the public, and their significance reaches far beyond the individual families to which they belong.

In 1975, Ash Lawrence recorded for posterity his recollections of the smells of the Jewish East End: the freshly baked bagels in Petticoat Lane, the pickled cucumbers and the salted herrings.

Such recollections evoke a time not so very long ago, but a world away for young people today. We need to make available as many as we can of the fascinating stories that make up the lives of our ancestors, and indeed, those of our older living relatives.

We must act now to make sure that our rich heritage is not lost to future generations. Our history is not just the preserve of academics or professional historians: it belongs to us all.

Last updated: 3:45pm, October 25 2013