The foundation of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 1893

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The Anglo-Jewish Historical Society of Great Britain is the latest addition to the thriving body of learned societies. Its birth can scarcely be called premature. When Aubrey Newman and I were in Washington last year representing the Society at the centennial of the American Jewish Historical Society, whose inaugural meeting occurred on Monday 6 June 1892, their President alluded to their own precedence and to our own forthcoming Centenary Conference. It is worth recalling that their two anniversaries in the 1880s gave them a stimulus that our own founding fathers lacked. They can trace their foundation to an appeal in June 1886, regarding the appropriate form for an American-Jewish contribution to the 1892 Columbus celebrations that were already in hand. And this appeal, it is duly acknowledged in America, was firmly bolstered by reference in due course to the success of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition (from which indeed, although it too had its precursor in Paris, our Jewish museums and the whole subsequent tradition of Jewish exhibitions all stem). We can therefore claim a sort of primacy in that Isidore Spielmann’s public announcements about the Exhibition date from letters in the Jewish World and the Jewish Chronicle on 23 April 1886. It is as well to make these matters clear at the outset, for this is not a matter of transatlantic rivalry (rather, as the sequel will show, of recognition of Continental primacy in the field); but that still does not settle the matter of origins.

It is to Lucien Wolf that one has to trust for most of the salient details and emphases at play throughout the ‘super-elephantine period of gestation’ that brought this Society into being, as Cecil Roth noted in his seventieth-anniversary address in 1968.1 Roth, and more particularly the Revd S. Levy writing in the Jewish Chronicle in July 1914, provide the most significant later glosses on this history. Wolf’s definitive account, given as his fifth inaugural address in January 1912,2 must be familiar to us all. If I cannot here fulfil his expectation of providing the history ‘written in a compendious form’, I hope that this reworking of his account will serve to add a flavour of the cultural and intellectual climate of the time, and of the personalities involved.

My introductory epigraph comes from a notice in the St james’s Gazette of Monday 6 June 1893. The reference to the ‘body of learned societies’ suggests that we are not to confine ourselves just to the Anglo-Jewish culture of the time. There was a general expectation that such a society should already have been on the scholarly stage, so its foundation was not unexpected. The account in the Gazette continues:

The new society was formed on Saturday evening at a meeting held at the St James’s Hall Restaurant. Mr Lucien Wolf, father of the scheme, was in the chair, and he was supported by a goodly array of Anglo-Jewish notables, with the Chief Rabbi at their head. Mr Wolf was elected first president of the new Society, with

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