For the Jews of 19th century Britain, the Diamond Jubilee offered a chance to express appreciation for the rights and privileges bestowed upon the community in the 60 years since Queen Victoria’s accession.
On Sunday June 20, two days before the official festivities, synagogues across Britain marked the occasion by scattering flowers and ribbons in the national colours, arranging for choirs to sing dedicatory tunes and holding collections in aid of the Jewish poor, aged or infirm.
The service at the Great Synagogue in London’s East End was attended by the most prominent names, among them Rothschilds, Montagus, Sebag-Montefiores, Goldsmiths and Sassoons, but synagogues from Chester to Cork and Dover to Dalston, also marked the anniversary.
Some communities hosted meals or parties for schoolchildren; at others, congregants sang God Save the Queen in Hebrew or covered the ark in white vestments or the British flag. Jewish women “donned their gayest of Yom Tov frocks” for a day “when one of their sex was glorified,” while a Jubilee service was held for the Jewish inmates of Pentonville Prison.
The Chief Rabbi, Dr Herman Adler, devised a special Jubilee service. At the Jews Free School, a dinner was held, consisting “of the substantial fare of roast beef, vegetables and sweets, with non-intoxicating beverages”.
Victorian Britain was a great place to be Jewish. The year that Victoria came to the throne, Moses Montefiore was knighted. By her Diamond Jubilee, the Jews could claim three peers, five baronets, 11 knights and seven MPs — a decisive shift.
Indeed, great pride was taken in the fact that on entering London for her Jubilee procession, Queen Victoria was greeted first by the Lord Mayor Sir George Faudel-Phillips, “a co-religionist”, as the JC boasted.
The knighting of Dr Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine as part of the Jubilee honours led the JC to reflect that “a Russian Jew, trained in the schools of European science, saves the lives of helpless Hindoos and Mohammedans and is decorated by the descendant of William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great.”
Jews used the occasion to highlight their devotion to the Crown and their gratitude to the monarch for turning “darkness into light”, as Glasgow’s Rev E P Phillips put it.
Hammersmith’s minister gave a sermon praising the “most astounding progress, social and political” of the Victorian era, in which “Jews feel a thrill of pride no less than our non-Jewish brethren… We boldly assert that there are no subjects of the Queen more loyal to her service, no people among the variegated host that go to make up the British Empire, who glory more in the name of Englishmen than ourselves.”
He added: “No people are more misunderstood than we are, and we have to prove that our religion is no barrier to performing our undivided duty towards the State.”
The question of loyalty was keenly felt at the time, against the backdrop of a time of great change for the Jewish community. The influx of poor, often illiterate Jews from the Pale brought an increase from an estimated 60,000 in 1880 to up to five times that number by the turn of the century. Yet the new arrivals did not avoid the celebrations — a dinner was even held for 68 immigrants at the “Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter”, although it took place a week early “because a large number… left for the United States on Tuesday”.
According to the JC that week, “Jubilee Shobbos” would long be remembered. “The Jew of the East was as eager to testify his pleasure at the spectacle as the native Gentile,” we reported.
“Houses were decorated, and the younger portion of the masses wore Jubilee favours and waved flags. The elders for their part discussed the difference between the Russian and the British soldiers and went away with the conclusion that the latter were Scheine Kerls (fine fellows)… “It was touching in the extreme to observe the overwhelming feeling which welled up in the hearts of these immigrants and found its due expression in the shouting forth of the national anthem.
“These true representatives of the ‘Tribe of the wandering foot and weary breast’ gave an example to the native Jews assembled in more fashionable shrines in the West End, how to combine pious devotion to God with enthusiastic loyalty to the throne.”
The Jubilee was not without its controversies. The addition of women to several shul choirs was the subject of some disapproval. At the Great Synagogue, “the innovation, which has caused great heartburnings among a large section of the ordinary worshippers at the synagogue, was certainly not justified from the aesthetic point of view”.