The onus is on my generation to remember the previous chapters in Anglo-Jewry's story.

December 05, 2016 00:35

When I left the JC as a full-time staff member, colleagues joked that the National Archives would be in mourning. While on the paper I spent plenty of time looking backwards, browsing the JC's now-175-year back issues, or exploring newly-released government documents. From old advertisements to stuffy Victorian-era reporting, and of course the sobering dispatches from the foreign correspondents of the 1930s, I was fascinated to discover what the community had got up to once upon a time.

But what struck me as I buried my head in editions from the 1880s - "Look at this letter," I'd cry to mystified colleagues - was how shamefully little I knew. East End, check, refugees, check, Cable Street, check. But beyond that? I was the product of an engaged family, Hebrew classes, Jewish studies GCSE and A-Level, regular shul attendance (then, if not so often now), and several years in a youth movement. Yet my knowledge of Anglo-Jewish history was passable at best, and I don't think I'm alone in that, even among peers who attended Jewish schools.

The focus of Jewish education throughout my childhood and teenage years - at shul and beyond - lay elsewhere. Mostly, it concentrated on Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish culture and custom, or learning Ivrit. When we talked about the Anglo-Jewish past, it was usually through the prism of our contribution as an immigrant community to business and entertainment; important, yes, but far from the whole story. If you'd asked me about the Ethiopian Aliyah, or the Six Day War, I could have told you plenty, or at least known where to begin. Had you quizzed me on Herzl, Schindler or the Wannsee Conference, or the traditions around the omer, I'd have been on safe ground.

But seminal moments, like Clifford's Tower, what motivated Cromwell to readmit the Jews, or the writing of Israel Zangwill? The Louis Jacobs Affair, the Jewish suffragettes, the splits in the Anglo-Jewish community over Zionism before 1948? The dignitaries who shaped the 19th century community, or the charities they set up for those arriving from the Pale? The Jewish politicians who blazed a trail through Westminster. Less so.

Outside the confines of the school curriculum, youth movements are the obvious place to teach this stuff, especially given they are themselves an integral part of Anglo-Jewish history. Yet I can't remember many summer camp peulot that covered it in more than a cursory way.

It's time to think about our past differently

That's not to lay blame - as a madricha I too prioritised the staples - and with such long history, it's hardly surprising that some aspects of the Jewish story have fallen through the gap. Still, perhaps it's time that we start thinking about our past in a different way, and ensure talking about it forms a central part of the Jewish education we offer the next generation. With so many now attending Jewish schools, the opportunity has never been greater.

We may be a different community to that of a century ago or two, but it still matters that we know what defined us then, so we understand how far we've come and don't take our security here for granted. We need to know how diverse we were and what we contributed to the making of modern Britain and its cities and towns - and equally when we fell short - in order to comprehend why being a strong

and outward-looking community

matters today.

Last weekend, my sister and I joined our grandfather and scores of Jewish former servicemen and women for the annual AJEX remembrance parade. It's an impressive affair, even so many decades on from this country's major wars. There's something profoundly inspiring for me - who has only known peace here - to see those who lived through conflict commemorate their contribution to Britain's safety.

For obvious reasons, today's event is but a shadow of the celebration it once was, when tens of thousands of Jews from all corners would flock to London and raise their standards with pride. So amidst the cold, it was good to see members of my generation or younger. many accompanying grandparents or with school or scouting groups. But considering how many people we get out for Chanucah in the Square, or to a rally in support of Israel, turnout was paltry. Where were the youth movements other than JLGB?

Those who remember a time when we were not a thriving, well established part of British life will not be with us forever - already many are not. The onus is on my generation to remember the previous chapters in Anglo-Jewry's story.

December 05, 2016 00:35

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