Modern British Jewry.
In this authoritative, expensive study on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British Jews and their attempts to create a cohesive community, Geoffrey Alderman posits that the search for consensus is ongoing and will doubtless extend into the twenty-first century. Alderman skillfully defends his thesis in seven chapters of institutional, philanthropic, political, and social history. The missing adjective is "intellectual," and this might well be the key to finding a Jewish "center" if, indeed, there is one to be found among Britain's Jews.
According to Alderman, who uses a wide variety of public documents and periodicals, one hundred years of Jewish life in Great Britain, from 1830 to 1930, were not characterized by much tangible change. Those in command were the benefactors: grandees, aristocrats, and the "genteel," orthodox Ashkenazic patricians. These were irritated with, but not really moved by, a succession of challenges from massive East European proletarian immigration, reform and liberal Judaism, trade unionism, strikes, Yiddish culture, feminism, communism, fascism, and the Holocaust. This reviewer found neither the United Synagogue nor the Board of Deputies compelling. The chief rabbis weren't as involving as the men who made them or could manipulate or break them. Such names as Montefiore, Rothschild, and Montagu appear and reappear throughout the narrative. These three families, their motivations, their fears, and their compulsions are not entirely revealed in the sources used by Alderman, and their centrality to the story demands scrutiny of manuscript collections, personal papers, and private correspondence. Perhaps this will be on Alderman's agenda should he choose to write a fifth book on Judaism in Britain.
Zionism broke the grip of the Old Guard, but it took a painfully long time to do so, and the triumph was by no means absolute. In the decades after the Balfour Declaration, Jewish nationalism provided a real counterweight to Ashkenazic leadership, which heretofore had neutralized and vitally absorbed the immigrant community within its own institutional framework. Centered in provinces like Manchester, Zionism was a revolt of respectable, middle-class Jews against the London elite, and it worked. By 1940, the history of drift, self-absorption, and insularity that characterized the Ashkenazim was amply demonstrated in their preference for low-profile politics, distaste for incoming refugees, and disinterest in plating refugee children. In such an atmosphere Zionism spoke powerfully for refugeeism and Israeli rebirth, while control within the Board of Deputies finally and irrevocably shifted.
It was, however, a hollow victory. Since 1950, the Board of Deputies no longer represents British Jewry, which has become "pluralized" and "polarized" among chassidim, the younger orthodox anxious to escape their parents' assimilationist past, the Sephardim, liberal and reform Jews, and the upwardly mobile (377). Creative intellectual effort must be brought to bear in solving this dilemma.
Stuart Knee University of Charleston
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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