Genealogy and Jewish history1

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Genealogical studies have been pursued for centuries, but it is only in the past forty or fifty years that they have fired the enthusiasm of a substantial number of people, leading to its having become one of the nation's major leisure activities. There is a minor irony in the fact that the modern Jewish interest in the pastime has developed even more recently than in the wider society; for 'in Jewish tradi? tion, genealogy is rooted in the very origins of the people itself. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, much commentary is devoted to the lineage of the Patri? archs. The very definition of who is a Jew, while not capable of being reduced down to a single concept, in the case of those born into the faith requires matrilin eal proof of identity. A wise insistence on acknowledgement of the mother for basic Judaic inheritance dates from the earliest times, and this was skilfully blended with paternal transmission in such matters as the handing on of land and the priesthood. Early Jewish thinking demonstrates the lucid grasp of the nature of some genetic disorders: for example, the laws pertaining to ritual circumcision were modified in cases of haemorrhagic illnesses in such a way that all potentially affected males of that family would be spared exposure to risk of bleeding.'1

It was only in 1992 that the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain was founded, although a call for such a society had been made by Bertram Benas of Liverpool in 1937.2 This can now take its rightful place as pre-eminent in promot? ing the study of Anglo-Jewish genealogy. There is a considerable overlap of membership between both societies, as is likely to remain the case for the foresee? able future. That both societies produce regular publications is also very useful. Probably the pioneer work as far as Anglo-Jewry is concerned is that of Pro? fessor Bill Williams, whose influence provided the main thrust for historians to re-examine their attitude towards genealogy. Williams' concept was simple but challenging. His appreciation of the minority experience derived initially from his Catholic upbringing in Wales; and arriving in Manchester in 1966 and having been trained as an historian he applied himself to researching the history of the local Jewish community. His work, The Making of Manchester Jewry, ij40-187^ was published in 1976, and while more has no doubt been discovered, the book is still the definitive account of the Manchester Jewish community. It is also the first major historical work for which a thorough sifting of the natiional decennial census formed one of the basic research tools in its compilation. Williams attracted a team of researchers who examined in meticulous detail numerous secular decen? nial censuses for Manchester and abstracted the details of its Jewish population. The methodology can be criticized for its flaws and inaccuracies, since nobody was asked for census purposes either for their religion or ethnicity and this has therefore to be inferred from their names, occupations and

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