The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry?

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This paper will focus not on the demographic decline in Anglo-Jewry's population or the splits and fractures in Anglo-Jewish life, although these will be touched on, but on the loss of a separate British Jewish identity over the past forty years or so, as counterposed to other forms of nationally ori? ented Jewish identities. My thesis is as follows: each Diaspora Jewish com? munity in modern times has evolved separate and distinctive characteristics with its ambience, structure, component parts and ideologies, as Anglo Jewry most certainly did between about 1840 and i960; this Anglo-Jewish ambience and ideology was recognizably different from other very similar Diaspora communities, even in the English-speaking world. It regarded itself as different and prided itself on its differences. Since the 1950s, the distinctive characteristics of Anglo-Jewry have slowly but surely declined, so that today Anglo-Jewry draws most of its responses and cues from out? side, in particular, of course, from the two largest and most important com? munities in the world: the United States and Israel. Finally, this decline in Anglo-Jewish distinctiveness has coincided with, and is presumably related to, the decline of Britain as a great power and the loss of self-confidence and distinctiveness by the wider British community.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Anglo-Jewry developed a characteristic set of institutions and leadership elements which differed from those in other Diaspora communities. Self-evidently, the two most important and best-known were the Board of Deputies, which evolved in the century or so after its initial formation in 1760, and the institution of Chief Rabbi, which also gradually emerged at the same time. Other Jewish communities in Europe also had kehillot and recognized chief rabbinates, but without Britain's peculiar institutions. For instance, membership in the Anglo-Jewish community was always a voluntary act and the community had no power to levy taxes on all local Jews, as did many Jewish communi? ties on the Continent, unless they opted out to pay for Jewish social welfare, education, and so on. Yet the Board of Deputies was given extraordinary quasi-legal powers by Parliament in 1836-7 to name congregations legally able to conduct Jewish marriages, and later also acquired a range of other legal and quasi-legal powers, especially to grant exemptions to the Sunday Trading Act.

Apart from this, and more importantly, the mainstream of Anglo-Jewry adopted a characteristic set of group attitudes and unofficial defining struc? tures which continued to mark it for the next century or so. Most obviously, perhaps, it was in terms of religious practice what might be defined as 'mod? erate Orthodox'. While unswervingly Orthodox in its ritual, eschewing the development of the Liberal and Reform movements, it was equally wary of strict Orthodoxy, and Britain had no, or very few, Hasidic synagogues, yeshivot, or strictly Orthodox communities on the Eastern European line until, arguably, the twentieth century. Strict Orthodoxy hardly made any impact on Anglo-Jewry until after the Second World War. As a result, the Chief Rabbi was never, or almost never, a renowned talmudic scholar

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