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Where Do We Go From Here?
By Naidia Woolf
During a stay in London in the 1990s I stopped by one of the City’s renowned bookstores on the Marylebone Road, known to old-time Londoners as “bookshop row.” As I browsed through the section devoted to Judaism, Jewish history and philosophy, my eyes lighted on "Radical Assimilation in English Jewish History, 1656-1945" by Todd M. Endelman. As a second generation Anglo-Jew of Polish Jewish ancestry my primary interest was in the chapters entitled, “Ashkenazim”; “Native Jews in the Victorian Age,” and “From World War I to World War II.” Contrary to what many English Jews believe, Ashkenazim (originally from Central Europe) began arriving in England in the late seventeenth century, two centuries before the mass immigration of mainly Eastern European Jews of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From then on, “The Ashkenazi population [in England] continued to expand rapidly by 1830, there were about 18,000 … [mostly from] Holland, the German states, and even Poland.”
Chapters of less personal interest were those describing the history of Sephardim and German Immigrants.
In the Preface to his book Endelman writes:
“Because little has been written about the religious behavior and Jewish consciousness of the middle-class community during the Victorian era or the anglicized children of the immigrants in the interwar years, knowledge of which is essential to understanding drift and defection in those periods, I have gone into some detail in treating these topics.”
"Radical assimilation was not an extraordinary event, a phenomenon on the periphery of Jewish life, but rather a common occurrence, eating away at the maintenance of group solidarity. … In every generation, from the Resettlement of the mid-seventeenth century through the end of World War II, hundreds of English Jews renounced their origins and merged completely with the larger society through conversion or inter-marriage.”
Unfortunately, Endelman’s book only covers the period 1656-1945. That figure now runs into the thousands. Later, I will discuss the highest percentages of intermarriage by Jews around the world (mainly in Eastern and Western Europe, including England, and the United States).
An important explanation for these differences is to be found in the strength of Jewish identify and how it is instilled through the Jewish educational system, among other influences, and “the extent of integration of ethnic groups into the mainstream … there is no doubt that the openness of the majority society [England being a case in point], in which, from the Jewish standpoint, there are aspirations for integration and societal advancement, involve[s] a not insubstantial sacrifice of unique characteristics in their own way of life. They ultimately also involve sacrifices regarding their basic system of values. … [However] the Jewish public is [also] comprised of various strata which represent a whole spectrum [ranging] from those who preserve the unique Jewish system of behavior and faith [to at] the other extreme, those who have no interest in [maintaining their connection to the] culture and history of their ancestors.”
The reasons for assimilation in England since the Resettlement are complex. Unlike on the European Continent, English Jews have not been subjected to overt, wholesale (government-sponsored or propelled) discrimination and oppression, incarceration or pogroms. Nevertheless there has always been a subtle and pervasive discrimination in British society, what you might call a “lack of acceptance” by the majority culture.
Traditionally, English Jews were considered foreigners (“not really English!”), so not entirely welcome or understood. I experienced this first-hand as a child during the Second World War. In the fall of 1941, during the Birmingham Blitz, I was evacuated to North Wales along with my mother and sister. There we treated as foreigners, spied upon by our landlady’s son, and accused of buying scarce food items on the black market. (This was during stringent food rationing.) Upon our return to the Birmingham area, a year later, I was enrolled in an elementary school where most of the children were from what are referred to in class-conscious Britain as lower class families.
To some Britons (from both extremes of the social spectrum including the upper, more privileged and better educated classes) Jews were responsible for the rise of fascism because they sought to “control the world” by monopolizing the international banking industry: the old anti-Semitic slur. One afternoon, after school, I went to the bicycle shed and found a swastika etched on my bike. On another occasion as I was cycling home, a boy yelled, “Go back to Jewland!” from across the road and hurled a rock at me. (Today, in Britain’s highly charged, multi-cultural society, my young assailant would probably grow up to be a skinhead.)
There’s an old saying about English Jews: that they are “more English than the Queen.” In the UK it has always been important to fit in, to conform to social/cultural norms. I suspect that the Antisemitism of the upper classes, at least, during the first half of the twentieth century, was due in part to their having a close affinity (acknowledged or otherwise) to that of their German counterparts, the British royal family being closely related to German princes through Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. (Kaiser Wilhelm II was first cousin to the English monarch, Edward VII.) This is effectively and movingly portrayed in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “The Remains of the Day.” (published in 1989) in which the butler’s master, Lord Darlington, holds a secret meeting on his country estate with members of the German government in 1935 (after Hitler came to power).
My father was a typical first generation English Jew. The oldest son of a Polish Jewish immigrant, he (along with his siblings) attended the Hebrew school in Birmingham (now known as King David School), attended services at the conservative synagogue (Singer’s Hill) on major Jewish holidays, married a Jewish girl in an arranged marriage (shidduch), and kept his shop open on Shabbat. All of his friends (and most, if not all, of his business associates) were Jews. As for both of my parents, they observed minimal interaction with neighbors; this, however, may have been due in part to the well-known (and notorious) British reserve (which they had “inherited”) rather than a lack of trust or community spirit. We kept kosher in the home but were somewhat less observant when we ate in a restaurant: nothing traif (forbidden) though!
According to a March 2005 article in BBC News/UK, Jewish leaders fear that British Jewry might die out because of intermarriage. “Britain’s Jewish population is in serious decline. The last census in Britain showed that 266,000 people said they were Jewish [a mere] 0.5% of the population.” (Recent statistics show that 30% to 50% of young Jews in Britain now marry outside the religion.) To this writer this indicates there are fewer chances or opportunities for Jews to meet, interact, and marry other Jews. Out of a total world population of 13.3 million Jews, of the 8.35 million in the Diaspora (i.e., outside of Israel) population growth is now close to zero percent. At last count, Britain, which ranked number six among the top twelve Jewish populations in the world had (a mere) 275,000 Jews, whereas, in marked contrast, the USA (predictably), with a ratio of 20.1 of the general population, ranked number one with 6.5 million and Israel, with 4.95 million (number two).
The highest rate of intermarriage today is in the former Soviet Union “where more than 75% of the Jews are marrying non-Jews. In the United States the figures are close to 55% ….”
If the Jewish people survive it most likely will be in Israel and thanks to the Orthodox who believe in having big families, in part to replace the six million who perished during the Holocaust. One study has predicted that Israel will be home to the world’s largest Jewish community as early as 2020, and the majority of world Jews by 2050. In the next 80 years the number of Jews in Israel would likely double, to around 10 million. Notwithstanding “the number who define themselves as traditional has dropped from 42% to 35% while the number who define themselves as non-religious has risen from 38% to 43%, which reflects a greater polarization of Israeli society.”
This raises the inevitable question: Would it take another Holocaust for Jews to return to the religion of their forefathers? (G-d forbid) Some survivors of the Nazi concentration camps ascribed their survival to their profound and unshaken belief in G-d; others, however, believed (like Job in his extremity) that the Almighty had deserted them and turned their backs on Judaism.
My own (extended) Anglo-Jewish family is a typical example of what Professor Endelman calls drift and defection. For example, none of my sister's four daughters married a Jew; one was in an inter-racial relationship and her younger daughter has followed suit. The younger son of my mother's older sister left his Jewish wife while involved in a long-term relationship with a gentile. After a long drawn-out, contentious divorce my cousin (“the black sheep of the family”) eventually married his non-Jewish mistress. Of the two sons he sired with his first (Jewish) wife, the first married within the faith, the second, a Japanese woman he met while living in that country. The two children (boy and girl) my cousin had with his second wife were not brought up Jewish. Their daughter married "out"; the son has never married. I remember sitting in my cousin’s living room around Christmas time (“that holiday!” as my father used to say, with a grimace) and trying not to wince as my cousin’s little granddaughter sang a Christmas carol. (I remember glancing at my cousin “Grandpa” as he sat quietly over to the side and wondering what he was thinking, as a Jew.) Another cousin of mine and her husband had four daughters. Only one married a Jew (an Israeli).
The only other exception to all this assimilation and intermarriage in my family is my cousin in London who grew up in a progressive Jewish home but married an orthodox Jew. I recently inserted the names and vital statistics of their extensive family into my family tree: one of their married daughters has ten or maybe eleven children.
Having married a gentile myself, I am not in a position to "point the finger." I would have preferred marrying someone of the same religion but the Jewish men I was dating at that time weren't interested in long-term commitments. (This was during the “free love” era of the 1960s.) My only daughter is married to a non-Jew. (I remember my sense of shock on hearing her tell someone she was “of Jewish background” rather than “I’m Jewish.”) Although I am not completely reconciled to her point of view I can understand it. While she was growing up I wasn’t able to provide her with a religious education or expose her to other Jewish people in the community.
To digress momentarily: Unlike what some Jews like to believe we are not all descended from King David, descendants of the ancient Israelites and therefore “100 percent” Jewish! I always get a kick out of asking Jewish acquaintances, “Do I look like an Arab?” (a question always met with a bemused silence). My mtDNA testing revealed that 50 or more generations ago my maternal ancestor (known as one of the seven daughters of Eve) migrated from Scandinavia to Northern Europe.
Over the millennia Jews have intermarried with non-Jews. In some cases entire communities have converted to Judaism after being exposed to Jews and (in some cases) the beautiful and inspiring language of the Torah. (A fascinating book that examines the issue of who is a Jew is “Fragile Branches: Travels through the Jewish Diaspora” by James R. Ross.) A few years ago I read somewhere that European (including Russian) Jews with red hair and fair skin were probably descended from Celtic tribes that migrated from the British Isles to the European Continent. “Red-hair is found commonly amongst Ashkenazi Jewish populations, possibly due to the influx of European DNA over a period of centuries.” Some authorities, however, maintain that members of the Ten Lost Tribes were red-headed.
One can only hope that some of the intermarriage of Jews and Gentiles will enrich rather than fragment or weaken Jewish life. In my conservative shul in San Francisco, California, at least one third of the congregation is comprised of interfaith couples and their children. (My old rabbi once told the congregation that the reason why Judaism had outlived other ancient religions was because (unlike them) it had been responsive to change. During the last night of Chanukah I watched the radiant, uplifted faces of their children as they lit the last candles on the menorahs and sang a traditional Jewish melody. I remember thinking that these children were the promise of a “committed and robust future” for the Jewish people. I have to admit that some of the “converts” (mostly women) attend services more regularly, know more Hebrew, and participate in the social affairs and outreach of the synagogue more than I do. One or two even sing in the choir!
Naidia Woolf is a writer and editor who lives and works in San Francisco, California. She has had numerous articles on Jewish genealogy and history published in England and the US.
from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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