Commentary Magazine


Social History of the Jews in England, 1850-1950, by V. D. Lipman

Pedestrian History
Social History of the Jews in England, 1850-1950.
by V. D. Lipman.
Watts (London). 200 pp. 18 shillings.

 

English Jewry has a number of social traits, which I think we may call virtues, lacking in American Jewish life: communal unity, a kind of organized respect for differing opinion, a high level of Jewish literacy. Remarkably homogeneous, Anglo-Jewry favors a traditional orientation toward religion, a middle-class attitude toward politics, and an authentic social conservatism. Its cultural achievements have put all of English-speaking Jewish scholarship in its debt. A social history of so remarkable a community should offer great insights for American Jews.

How is it, for example, that the British United Synagogue has successfully directed the geographical expansion of new congregations so that there is a synagogue within walking distance of Jews almost everywhere in the British Isles? Why has the “progressive approach” to Judaism so miserably failed to attract English Jews? And an even more basic question: why is it that Anglo-Jewry has not suffered the loss of the “second generation” immigrant children? Why, in short, with the same raw material that went into the making of American Jewry, is Anglo-Jewry so different, urbane, possessing Jewish cultivation, and a cohesive community?

There is rich source material lying ready to hand for answering such questions. The century-old Jewish Chronicle, the dispassionate reports of Royal Commissions, the perceptive stories of Israel Zangwill and other writers—these await study by a keen social observer. But Mr. Lipman has unfortunately interpreted the role of the social historian so narrowly that he is content merely “to present the facts . . . about the numbers and distribution of British Jewry, their economic activity and institutional life.” “By 1914,” he typically says, “tailoring, boot and shoemaking, and furniture were, with cap-making, tobacco, and furs, the characteristic occupations of the Jewish quarters.” Social history, he writes, is made by “institutions and men . . . who left the impress of their character and ideals . . . upon the development of Anglo-Jewry as a whole”; but “men and institutions” in this work are a catalogue of names and titles and not at all living history.

The study is made up of a series of portraits of Anglo-Jewry at discrete historical moments (1850,1880,1914), for, Mr. Lipman says, “it is difficult to show social history as a continuous process.” Swamped by his material, the author doggedly pursues his task: “The Jews had lost control of the orange and nutselling, and indeed of all trades except to some extent sponges and black-lead pencils . . . in 1851 there were still about ninety Jewish sponge-sellers.” Every last manufacturer of “slop jackets” is counted, every last “tireless community worker” is named. The career of the immigrant is described in the most trivial terms of amount of shillings-per-day received and average diet (“In boot and shoemaking, 7/—, 8/—or less are quoted. During this period, the ‘greener’ proverbially lived on ‘red herring and a cup of coffee.’”) Nowhere, directly or indirectly, does he attempt to judge or even describe the immigrant Jew’s encounter with the whole experience that is England.

What we are left with in Mr. Lipman’s book is the virtue of unpretentiousness touched with the self-effacing gentility of British Jewish life. Yet the author’s method harks back to something as removed from Anglo-Jewry as the “scientific” sociology of the Yiddish secularism and socialism of Russo-Poland.

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