A collection of essays on the social history of British Jews is a milestone on the road to defining an elusive concept
Source: The Jewish Tribune, 4-29-11
By Todd M Endelman
The Littman Library, £39.50
Professor Todd Endelman, who teaches modern Jewish history at the University of Michigan, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of European and specifically of British Jewry, on which he has authored three superb monographs and scores of scholarly articles. In this collection, he brings together 14 of his essays, most related the history of the Jews in England and all addressing the overarching theme of the volume, namely the “social” history of “ordinary” Jews.
These words – “social” and “ordinary” – beg many questions. Social history came of age in the third quarter of the 20th century in reaction to political history (centred on the deeds and misdeeds of politicians), diplomatic history (centred on the machinations of diplomats) and economic history (centred on national economies in the abstract).
Social history does not deal with elites – the few – but with the many, whose history is much more difficult to recount since, by definition, the many leave no institutional record and precious few memoirs. Until the advent of social history, those who wrote about the Jews had concentrated largely on institutions and elites. What social historians, including Professor Endelman, have done is shift the focus on to “ordinary” Jews.
But what is an “ordinary” Jew? Reading the essays in this volume one soon realises that there is no such entity. The most enjoyable chapter reproduces a study of Jacob Rey – “Jew” King – a scoundrel of a moneylender who, as Endelman reminds us, “flourished in the freewheeling atmosphere of late Georgian London.” Lending to “dissolute womanisers and compulsive gamblers,” Rey’s extraordinary career does indeed have much to tell us about the seamier side of life in the reign of George III. Rey was nothing if not ambitious. He married (apparently) into the landed aristocracy and dabbled in radical politics. But he never attempted to hide his Jewish identity…
This volume is subtitled: “Towards a Social History of Ordinary Jews” thereby charting directions others must take if such social histories are ever to be written. The raw material is certainly there, but discovering its location and divining its meaning are no easy tasks. But Endleman has provided a guidebook and a manual.
Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist