Life & Culture

Is the British Jewish community snobbish?

Being working class used to be the norm for British Jews, but in a generation we've been upwardly socially mobile. So how does it feel to be a blue collar worker and Jewish in 2020?


When Elise Bowes left school in the mid-Eighties she had an offer to read politics at university. But she went to work in Top Shop instead. She wanted to start earning money and her parents, a cabbie and a hairdresser, didn’t discourage her.

A few years later Elise’s father was killed when he was knocked off his bike at 57. Not long after, her mother passed away when she was just 49. Materially, the couple left the world with about as much as they entered it. He had no life insurance and she had £15 in her purse. Neither had, or had ever had, a bank account.

“All my parents’ money went on food, eaten at the mahogany dining table that was the focus of our family life,” says Elise, 53. “They bought everything else, including the table, on HP. We lived for the day. No one thought about pensions or the future.”

There’s no agreed definition of the term working class. Marxists use it to describe people who have nothing to sell but their labour. In America it has come to mean those who don’t have college degrees. Here it’s shorthand for people who don’t work in the professions. Others believe in self-definition: you are working class if that’s what you feel you are.

Elise and her parents tick all the above boxes. They were skilled blue-collar workers who went to secondary modern schools. She is now an in-house recruiter for a kitchen manufacturer who describes herself as “working class and very proud of it.”

Culturally, Elise also feels very Jewish. “I make Jewish food, I light Yarzheit candles and I wish the bereaved a long life. I love Jewish humour and have what I’d describe as a kind of telepathy with other Jews.”

From the 1930s until the 1960s, Jews like Elise and her parents were the mainstream. In London, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow an immigrant generation lived in terraces and tenements, worked in factories and on market stalls, and were at the same time working-class, Jewish (though rarely religious) and mostly left-leaning. Films about Jewish families (like Jack Rosenthal’s Barmitzvah Boy, pictured above) were about working class people. So were sitcoms a tailor in Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, dry-cleaners in My Son Reuben.

But the immigrant generation encountered the anglicising power of education. Their market stalls were set up but their children studied hard so they could one day graduate and enter the worlds of medicine, academia and the law.

Today many of us work in these fields as well as in the media, the arts and the sciences.

The Jewish urge to get on, melded with the Jewish injunction to study and the opportunities offered have changed us from an overwhelmingly working-class community to a predominantly middle-class one.

Predominantly is the operative word. Compared to the general population, British Jews are now 80% more likely to have higher-level qualifications.

But despite the warped convictions of the far right and the far left, according to most estimates, around one in five Jews don’t identify as middle class. Many Jews, who often live in places like Hackney and Ilford, earn their living through traditional means such as cutting hair, fixing boilers and driving cabs.

Alex Meyer, 48, became a cabbie at 23 and then, reasoning that the future of driving the world’s most iconic taxi, a time-honoured Jewish tradition, was looking precarious, retrained as a plumber five years ago, recently opening his own business.

One of his four children is an apprentice plumber. Another son works behind the desk of a plumber’s merchant, one daughter is a hairdresser and another is currently working on a till at Sainsbury’s. “She’s actually the only one who’s been to university, but she’s a bit lost at the moment.”

Alex doesn’t feel lost at all but it does annoy him when clients express surprise that he’s Jewish. “They think we’re all rich and powerful and big in the media.”

His fellow workers often spout similar stereotypes. “When we’re on site I’ve been asked what I’m doing there — ‘you must have loads of money stashed under your mattress’. And they really don’t believe me when I say I don’t.”

Estelle Jones has had similar experiences. “The other day I went to a café with a woman I know really well. After we’d paid the bill there was some change left on the table. She’d said she should take it because I’m Jewish and don’t need it. It’s insane how irrational people’s prejudice is. She knows me and my three sons live in a one-bedroom flat above a shop in Ilford.”

Estelle left JFS at the age of 16 after a teacher told her he felt sorry for people from Hackney who didn’t really want to be at school. “After that, I just waltzed out and my mum, who didn’t have an education, didn’t try and stop me.

“Now I feel a lot of shame that I don’t have a degree. My brother and sister pushed themselves, got a proper education and now have good lives — they speak better than me and they have far more money than me. I feel like a second-class citizen in my own family.”

And outside of her family too. “There’s a lot of snobbery in the Jewish community. We are meant to better ourselves and I haven’t. At my kids’ Jewish school other children ask them how they can afford to eat if their mum doesn’t work.”

Alex encounters similar judgements. “Now that I’m running my own business there’s a bit of respect, but when I was just a plumber eyebrows were definitely raised.

“And when I was a cabbie, other Jews would say, ‘oh, lovely’ with a false smile. What they were really thinking was anyone can do your job, you’re bottom of the pile.”

“I’m absolutely proud of what I am, proud of being down to earth and proud of being Jewish.

“I’m your everyday Englishman.”

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