Jews in un­likely places

A new work shows that ‘pe­riph­eral’ cities played a far larger role in the his­tory of An­glo-Jewry that many peo­ple re­alise

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

IS IT pos­si­ble to write a his­tory of An­glo-Jewry in which the Jews of Lon­don and Manch­ester oc­cupy the pe­riph­ery, while Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in much smaller pro­vin­cial cen­tres take cen­tre-stage? In An­glo-Jewry since 1066, Tony Kush­ner, who holds the chair of Jewish/non-Jewish re­la­tions at the Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton, sets out to demon­strate that it is not only pos­si­ble but that the his­to­ries of the mi­nus­cule Jewish pres­ences in three south­ern English cities — Winch­ester, Portsmouth and Southamp­ton — can throw a unique light upon the construction of “the Jew” in English ur­ban life.

Winch­ester was one of the most im­por­tant ar­eas of Jewish set­tle­ment in me­dieval Eng­land. To­day, only the name of a soli­tary thor­ough­fare — “Jewry Street” — serves as a tan­gi­ble re­minder of this tur­bu­lent past, punc­tu­ated as it was with rit­ual mur­der ac­cu­sa­tions, base prej­u­dice and even­tual ex­pul­sion.

Nine hun­dred years ago, Jews (men and women) were cen­tral to Winch­ester’s eco­nomic pros­per­ity, not merely (or even pri­mar­ily) as money­len­ders, but as ar­ti­sans, crafts­men and shop­keep­ers. Yet, to­day, Winch­ester is re­luc­tant to re­mem­ber its Jews. When, in the 1990s, ar­chae­ol­o­gists un­earthed “Jewish” bones where the me­dieval Jewish ceme­tery was be­lieved to have been lo­cated, the city au­thor­i­ties ig­nored pleas not to dis­turb the Jewish dead, and seized in­stead the of­fer of a group of Or­tho­dox Jewish busy­bod­ies to have the re­mains re­buried in Manch­ester. As Kush­ner writes, “Winch­ester Jewry is now miss­ing from the city’s her­itage”.

As with Winch­ester, so with Portsmouth and Southamp­ton. The “folk” mem­ory of Portsmouth Jewry was epit­o­mised in Thomas Row­land­son’s 1814 en­grav­ing of “Portsmouth Point”, de­pict­ing the money­len­der “Moses Levy”. Portsmouth Jews — so folk mem­ory would have it — were lit­tle more than low-life usurers cheat­ing “Hon­est Jack” out of his hard-earned prize­money. The re­al­ity was very dif­fer­ent.

It is, in­ci­den­tally, as­ton­ish­ing now to think that, in the 18th cen­tury, the Jews of Portsmouth re­garded them­selves with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion as oc­cu­py­ing the epi­cen­tre of a set of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties stretch­ing from south­ern Eng­land to the north­ern Euro­pean main­land, and that the de­vel­op­ment of the of­fice of Bri­tish “Chief Rabbi” de­pended cru­cially upon their con­sent.

And Southamp­ton? In terms of trans­mi­grants, it is pos­si­ble (we shall never know) that, 100 years ago, Southamp­ton could boast a Jewish pop­u­la­tion larger than that of Lon­don’s East End. We do know that many of the “steer­age” pas­sen­gers on the Ti­tanic were Rus­sian and Pol­ish Jews bound for El­lis Is­land. How many of those who ap­plauded James Cameron’s 1997 movie block­buster (star­ring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) would have been aware of this fact?

Come to that, how many of those who en­joyed The Benny Hill Show on TV in the 1960s and 1970s re­alise that the raw, lech­er­ous com­edy of one of Southamp­ton’s most fa­mous sons grew out of Benny’s youth­ful in­ter­ac­tion with the Yid­dish-speak­ing Jewish shop­keep­ers of Southamp­ton’s in­fa­mous Canal Walk?

Pro­fes­sor Kush­ner has, in short, pro­vided a painstak­ingly re­searched, bril­liantly con­structed and en­tirely novel ap­proach to the his­tory of English Jewry.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist John Boas work­ing in the site of a me­dieval syn­a­gogue dis­cov­ered un­der a Guild­ford shop in 1996

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