Lively thrusts of an ‘im­par­tially jaun­diced’ his­to­rian



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

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