Lively thrusts of an ‘impartially jaundiced’ historian
BRITISH JEWRY SINCE EMANCIPATION
By Geoffrey Alderman University of Buckingham, £45
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is the Marmite of AngloJewry; either you love him or loathe him. I must confess to being one of his admirers. In his weekly JC column he speaks truth to power, skewers with mordant wit the pomposities of those who presume to act on our behalf, and is impartially jaundiced about the foibles and delusions that span the Jewish spectrum from ultra-Orthodoxy to secular Left.
This book is essentially an update of his 1992 publication Modern British Jewry (revised second edition 1998) — a key reference work for the history of Anglo-Jewry. What is new is the final chapter that takes the story up to the summer of 2013.
Although it may be too soon to pass definitive judgment on trends in Anglo-Jewry during the first decadeand-a-half of the 21st century, Alderman is at his shrewdest in charting the accelerated takeover of power by the new plutocracy and its “secret government of British Jewry” through the establishment of self-appointed, non-elective bodies such as the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) or the Community Security Trust (CST), at the expense of traditional institutions like the Board of Deputies.
And he is at his most withering in assessing the chief rabbinical tenure of Jonathan Sacks, probably the most intellectually gifted, facilely fluent, theologically vacillating chief rabbi ever to hold that post. If Immanuel Jakobo- vits was the ideal cleric for the Thatcher era, the perfect fit for the Blair years was Jonathan Sacks.
Shortly after he had become mired in another of the controversies that marked his reign, I wrote an article predicting that, in an increasingly splintered and diversified Anglo-Jewry, he would be the last man ever to be granted the grand title of “chief rabbi”.
That prophecy has effectively come to pass with the appointment of his amiably anonymous successor and the transfer of his residence from the palatial splendour of Hamilton Terrace to the more homely environs of Hendon.
Nor d o e s A l d e r man spare his own Federation of Synagogues, which, under the perennial presidency of Morris “ruthlessly charming to his friends and charmingly ruthless to his enemies” Lederman demonstrated FIFA levels of peculation.
The calcified Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, centred in London, Manchester and Gateshead, provides Alderman with additional sport.
He quotes from their 2011 English dictionary published for use in charedi families and schools, which has no entries for “internet” or “television”, defines “bishop” solely as a chess piece, omits “homosexual” and “prostitute” and describes “rape” as “a plant with bright yellow flowers.”
I think that more could have been said about the cultural vivacity — typified by Limmud and Jewish Book Week, neither of which merits an Index entry — that has been a heartening feature of Anglo-Jewry since the new millennium. Belief may be waning and synagogue membership is declining, but Jewish identity in its infinite variety is being maintained vigorously.
Alderman defines as Jewish “any person who… considers him- or herself to be such…” That will be an interesting starting point next time he comes to update this invaluable survey of British Jewry. David J. Goldberg is Emeritus Rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue.
Geoffrey Alderman with Helen Sagal whom he advised when her son was rejected by JFS in 2009