The way we were — and still are?

November 24, 2016 22:56

'Those who are acquainted with the requirements of the Passover festival, and the increased price at that period of all provisions… tremble at the additional and indispensable expense which [it] demands."

But for the long-winded language, this could have been the opening of a news item about Tesco hiking up the price of matzah for 2013. In fact, it was written more than 150 years ago, in an appeal for "Passover relief for the Jewish poor".

The way we write, or speak, about Jewish life may have changed in that time, but many of the issues are as relevant as ever. Take this, from December 1877, on which method of slaughtering animals was the most humane. "None but an animal twice slain, once by the Jewish mode and once by some other mode customary among the general population, could answer the question satisfactorily."

The same concerns, but the same community? The generation now celebrating second barmitzvahs, marking weddings of grandchildren and welcoming great-grandchildren, bridge a gap between past and present. For those born between the wars, Jewish life in the East End is not history but memory, the story of their own childhoods or those of their peers. It was their parents or grandparents who made up the cousinhood, or arrived in Britain from the shtetls of the Pale, fleeing pogrom and persecution in search of a better life. Or who escaped mainland Europe as survivors of the darkest period in history, or fled the Arab world when their place in it was threatened. It was their generation who built businesses and shuls, who set up social groups and religious bodies, whose Yiddish extended beyond a few choice phrases.

At times, Anglo-Jewry seems unrecognisable from what we know it once was. Today, major supermarkets not only stock kosher food but wage price wars over it. Israel - only a flicker of hope when our grandparents were born - is defended, debated and placed at the core of communal life. It is a five-hour flight away, on a range of airlines, something that would have been unthinkable for so many reasons just three generations ago.

Life in the East End is not history but memory

Antisemitism may still be a problem, but it is documented and challenged under the law in a way that few of our ancestors would have expected. We organise our communal life on the internet - a system prophesied by H G Wells, perhaps, but one that existed only in fantasy when our grandparents came of age - offering minute-by-minute commentary on communal affairs in 140 characters.

We can listen to stories, even browse old newspapers, but can we really relate to the characters and experiences in them? How to connect with our "co-religionists" - the term favoured in JCs of old but rarely used today - of days gone by? How not to lose touch with our roots, with where our grandparents came from and the challenges they overcame, when the set-up of our Jewish life - and our secular one - is so wholly distinct?

Perhaps we can't ever do so, really. But it is Friday night, and Pesach next week, then Shavuot, and Yom Kippur, and all the dates that have comprised our calendar for generations and continue to be marked the world over. Elements of religious custom, to be sure, but also stepping stones back in time.

There are spiritual reasons why we do the things we do - why we eat challah on Shabbat throughout the year, but replace it for one week with unleavened bread - and for some, these are what count. But perhaps the value in observing such things is also that they offer a way of connecting the community we once were to the one we have become.

In 1880, one David Cohen of Commercial Street advertised to JC readers that "he can supply for the ensuing Passover, the best and PUREST Grocery, Butter, Cheese, Oil, Vinegar, Spices… on the most reasonable terms."

We may no longer buy Pesach goods on Commercial Street but we will still sit down to Seder in the same way. We will moan about the prices as our ancestors did and, like them, we will question, debate, and disagree about everything. We have come a long way, yet at the same time, we are not so very different.

November 24, 2016 22:56

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