My invitations to 10 Downing Street come only because I am a rabbi. The last time I was at the prime minister’s residence, one of his advisers, her hair covered in Orthodox-married-woman style, popped into the room for a kosher bridge roll and a schmooze. Rabbis attended the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, attended the induction of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the newly appointed chief rabbi of British Orthodoxy.
On Brick Lane, in the heart of what was once known as the Jewish East End, my immigrant great-grandparents would have never imagined the prime minister’s residence serving kosher bridge rolls. Much has changed. Jews left the East End decades ago — before the mass Caribbean migrations into the neighborhood in the 1960s. Today, Brick Lane is full of Indian restaurants and newly arrived Somalis. If an individual wants to know the opinions of an unsettled community in Britain, he or she doesn’t ask a Jew.
Abraham introduces his quest for a burial place for Sarah with the phrase, ger v’toshav anochi. The phrase is usually translated to suggest that he was both a resident and a dweller in the kingdom of the Hittites, but the phrase can equally be understood with more tension: I live here, but apart. It’s a dialectic that has animated Jewish existence across centuries and continents. Our relationship with our surroundings has always been ambivalent — simultaneously pulled in the opposing directions of wishing to be insiders but being outsiders. But Anglo-Jewry has always yearned for a less complex relationship. Before the Jews were even permitted to return to Britain, in the mid-seventeenth century, Menasseh ben Israel wrote to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell offering to “sue for a blessing upon this Nation and People of England for receiving us into their bosoms and comforting Zion in her distress.” Today, Anglo-Jewish celebrations routinely include the loyal toast, “To Her Majesty.” And it’s not merely the hope that if we are nice to them, they will be nice to us; it’s a genuine desire to play our part in a society in which we are, in so many senses of the word, invested.
There is antisemitism, both classic and more modern, but British Judaism is animated neither by opposition to antisemitism nor that uncomfortable epithet of generations past, “Don’t marry a shikse.” In the absence of external unsettling influences, Anglo-Jewry has bedded down in those most English norms of decency, civility, and jolly-good manners. We are, perhaps, too settled. The late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, suggested that Anglo-Jewry was “so dead, not even tchiyat hameitim [bringing back the dead to life] would work.”
I certainly don’t feel dead — nor does the community I lead — but the vibrant edginess of unsettled Jewish life, often combined with herculean achievement in so many fields, from industrial to comedy, isn’t a part of the life I live as a British Jew. While I have no nostalgia for the antisemitism and anti-immigrant behavior of the last century, behavior that kept Jews on their metaphorical toes, I do miss the piquancy of a Jewish community less comfortably settled. My job, and that of many of my colleagues in British Jewry, entails promoting a distinctiveness that justifies Jewish difference in a community that simply is not unsettled. I spend my energies fostering a vibrancy that makes it worth being a British Jew, where the danger is the loss of the latter, rather than of the former.
The attempt to sell distinctiveness, rather than rely on unsettledness is a new departure for British Jewry, and the impact of this shift on the classic demographic markers of Jewish life is still, fully, to unfold. There are stand-out successes, such as Limmud and the rise of the Jewish day school movement, but outside the self-imposed ghettos of ultra-Orthodoxy, numbers are still declining and intermarriage rates remain high. At least British Jewry understands that the battle for a British Jewish future has to be an entrepreneurial fight for hearts and minds (and stomachs) rather than an old-fashioned reliance on externally imposed unsettling forces.
Editor’s note: Not long before this piece went to press, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a report, “Jewish Life in Europe: Impending Catastrophe or Imminent Renaissance.” The report speaks to the tension of settledness and unsettledness in European Jewish life, and contrasts data on the experience of antisemitism, particularly in mainland Europe, with the renaissance of Jewish life across the continent. The report is available online at