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    How Anglo-Jewry learned English

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple to the Jewish Historical Society of England Israel Branch on Wednesday, 15 July, 2015.


    There is an old saying, “Before I speak, I want to say a few words”. That’s me tonight. This is a meeting of the Israel Branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England, but when you tell people about our Society they’re not sure whether to be impressed or amused. Their first thought is that this is a gathering of British emigres at their old-timers’ club. That’s not untrue: indeed one of the attractions of our meetings is the chance to meet up again with people we knew in Scotland or Stamford Hill, in school or in shule, at places as diverse as the Zemel Choir and the Oxford Cholent Society. It’s fun, it’s pleasant, it’s nostalgic. Friendships are made or renewed, memories are exchanged, old times recalled.

    But that’s not the whole story. These remarks of mine are a JHSE Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Over half of World Jewry is English-speaking, which makes us a not unimportant sector of world Jewry. In Israel the Anglos are a significant segment of the nation. The communities we came from are an interesting, fascinating historical discipline. The Anglo-ethos is a major strand in the history of Zionism, Israel and Israeli society. Whatever our view of Britain and the Mandate, it had its influence on the development of Israel and Israeli institutions. Some aspects of the Anglo-ethos could and should play a larger role in Israeli life – ranging from British courtesy to the British electoral system – and in a sense that’s one of the tasks this Society could and should facilitate.

    But we have a wider task. The British Press once said that young people showed “indifference to the past, apprehension of the future and extreme cynicism about the future”. As a people of history, we as Jews should be examining our alleged indifference, apprehension and cynicism, and societies like ours should be spearheading this exercise. I believe those tasks are why we exist and what we have to do. So, as they say on the stage, “On with the show!” … And please turn off your cell-phones.


    In Norman times, Jews in England spoke French laced with Hebrew phrases. Even earlier, as Joseph Jacobs said, “London was the most important French city in Europe”. Not until 1362 was English the official language of the country. In 1290 Jews were expelled, but some still lived there with ambivalent status. Some were converts; some were professing Jews, ready to “come out” and practise Judaism. English itself was still developing, aided by the emergence of Bible translations: the Jewish Bible thus helped the spread of English phraseology and idiom.

    Upper-class Jews learnt a higher form of English, which opened the doors to English culture; in the lower classes English was mostly for pragmatic reasons. The Jews were tolerated aliens; the government left them to their internal affairs, though it debated their legal status. The Jews identified with the country and took it for granted that they should speak the language and that synagogue sermons should be in English. Hence Nathan Marcus Adler, Ashkenazi chief rabbi from 1845, and Benjamin Artom, Sephardi Haham from 1866, came with little English (Adler preached in German and Artom in French) but they soon learned English. But Adler’s predecessor, Solomon Hirschell, though born in England, knew little English, and Haham Raphael Meldola was not even fluent in Spanish.

    England saw commercial advantage in the first Sephardi arrivals, well-heeled traders including flamboyant figures, familiar with Mediterranean languages: Cecil Roth called them “a little oasis of Iberian tradition implanted in a foreign soil”. They learnt English but used Spanish and Portuguese amongst themselves. There is a story that Ashkenazi refugees from the Cossacks arrived even earlier. We know that wealthy Ashkenazi merchants came from Hamburg and Amsterdam, followed by often indigent Yiddish-speaking refugees; Roth says they “transplanted… something of the spirit of a central European ghetto”. The less cultured elements of both congregations often learnt an inferior form of English. The Sephardim thought of themselves as the gentry, though the Ashkenazim soon overtook them in terms of numbers. By the end of the 18th century there were 20,000-30,000 Jews in England (of whom less than 10% were now Sephardim).

    Jews came to English, and to England, to find security, employment and trade. In the early years the security aspect was paramount. Lionel Barnett says: “From the first days of their settlement in this country the Sephardim devoted themselves with passionate zeal to the worship of the God of their fathers who had guided them through dark and perilous ways to the peace of England”. The second stage of Ashkenazi newcomers were also in flight from “dark and perilous ways”. Some of both groups later left in search of better opportunities such as the Antipodean gold rushes; some went unwillingly on convict transports; some wanted to find (or escape) marriage partners. VD Lipman’s writings preserve data from the late 18th century aliens’ lists, showing that most Jews came to England to seek a livelihood. This and the English they learnt depended on their socio-economic level.

    MCN Salbstein analyses the appeal of England in The Emancipation of the Jews in Britain: the Question of the Admission of the Jews to Parliament, 1828-1860 (1982). He quotes Montesquieu and Voltaire, who remarked that England promoted commercial enterprise and personal freedom and fostered a “connection between liberty and trade”. Despite upper class disdain for trade and tradesmen as against lineage and inherited wealth, England was becoming interested in enterprise and business acumen, attractive to Jews since they were still excluded from many professions. Despite their city and country mansions, even the more cultured Jews were deemed foreigners, not the social equals of Christians. Yet many were not really aliens, since the increased Jewish population was not entirely due to immigration but to natural increase and lower mortality.

    Gentiles like George Croly thought the Jews were strangers “by blood, by habit, and by religion”. Still, there was broad support for the notion that “political security, not religious conformity, should be the criterion adopted by Government”. The Christians were in two minds. They recognised that Jews were a Biblical people, but Judaism had rejected Christ, and they thought Jews had uncouth habits. Hazlitt and Emerson preferred to “disdain Jewishness but support Emancipation”. Macaulay said that if some Jews had “degenerated from the qualities of their fathers”, it was because of how the Christians had treated them. The lay leaders believed that Christians would see Jews in a better light if they had handsome synagogues, urbane clergy, decorous services, and vernacular sermons; the Sephardim were unsure about sermons, fearing something being said which would affect Jewish acceptability. Learning English was axiomatic. It helped Jews to make a living. It facilitated relationships with non-Jews. It integrated Jews into the English way of life.

    Jewish involvement in Freemasonry was a mark of tolerance. By vouching for Jews who wished to join a Lodge, many leading gentiles showed they had no problem with Jews. Rev. Morris Rosenbaum’s lists of Jewish Masons included, apart from merchants, middle-class occupations such as peruke makers, engravers, silversmiths, watchmakers and even physicians, though there was an economic depression and the cost of living was rising. Jewish Freemasons had to know English in order to handle Lodge ritual, though there were less Ashkenazi than Sephardi Freemasons.

    Rev. John Mills estimated the lower classes as about half the Jewish community, about 20% upper class and 32% middle class. The lower classes, poor but not always honest, struggled to clothe their children and keep a roof over their heads. Some were helped by communal charity, but immense poverty remained. Both groups had a considerable economic divide: there were both grandees and paupers, and the congregational charities were often strict (and heartless) in the way they functioned. Levels of Jewish practice varied. The froom prayed at “minor” shules; they couldn’t afford the fees of the “establishment” synagogues.

    English literacy was generally beyond the lower classes, but they picked up enough street English to get by. The gentiles did not take kindly to them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that the Jewish old-clothes dealers wore their wares and smelt badly. He told one such Jew that he should learn to speak English properly and was met with the retort, “I can say ‘old clothes’ as well as you can; but if you had to say so ten times a minute… you would say ‘Ogh Clo’ as I do now…”

    Hawking hats, oranges and pencils, enabled the Jews to more or less make a living, but petty crime was rampant and about 1000 Jews were transported to Australia. Child labour was common. No-one had to go to school, and most children didn’t: education was not yet “free, compulsory and secular”. To counter Christian influences, the Jewish community built its own schools, but sending children to school generally meant less money coming into the home.

    Working class dreams of prosperity often failed to materialise, but the middle classes were determined not to sink back into pauperism and criminality. They picked up quite good English. Already in the 18th century many had English names (e.g. “William Smith”), and some English fluency. They moved from street trading and artisanship to commerce on a broader scale, brokerage and stock jobbing. Even if dazzling success eluded them, they rose financially, culturally and socially and overcame the taint of outsiders. Most had to make their own way without the advantages of birth and wealth. Even a relatively well-to-do father like the coral merchant Zadok Jessel could not guarantee a good job in the law for his son George, who rose on his own merits to become the first Jewish judge.

    Growing numbers were native-born. AM Hyamson quotes a gentile writer who said that in “dress, language, manners, cleanliness, politeness” the Sephardim had “little to distinguish them from Christians”. Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell made a similar remark about the Ashkenazim, but in critical vein: Jews eating Christmas puddings and going to the theatre on Friday nights!

    Jews took it for granted that they should be-abiding and patriotic. Though the Voice of Jacob said on 1 August, 1845, “We… claim first rank for our nation as the chosen one before God”, Jews were English patriots, and the patriotic songs of the 19th century came from a Jew, Henry Russell. Jews took care to give outsiders no reason to criticise them. The elders automatically used the vernacular, though the lower classes did not aspire to “high” English. The author of A Peep into the Synagogue said that the general run of Ashkenazim spoke “mixed jargon… German gibberish… a language not recognised by any Nation under the sun… (They know) no established language whatever… That mongrel jargon (Yiddish)… prevents them from ever speaking well, the language of any Country”.

    Moses Angel said that most of his Jews’ Free School pupils were “ignorant even of the elements of sound; until they had been anglicised or humanised it was difficult to tell… their moral condition, and many of them scarcely knew their own names”. They knew “neither English nor an intelligible language… their parents were the refuse population of the worst parts of Europe, whose first object in sending the children to school was to get them out of the way”. Angel was exaggerating, but his work succeeded. Parents were mildly amused when their children tried to handle English words, then they too experimented with the sounds and in time they too conversed in English.

    The middle and upper classes lived much as their gentile neighbours, acquired English articulation and the ways of polite society, and read the newspapers. Some had country houses, built up art collections and went to the opera. There was tolerance for Jews in circles as diverse as the Royal Society and the Freemasons’ lodges. Lodge meetings were reported in the Jewish press, believing Freemasonry to be “in perfect harmony with the principles of the Jewish doctrine of morality”. Most upper- and middle-class Jews continued to practise Judaism though some were baptised and married Christians; a provincial chazan-shochet, Michael Solomon Alexander, even became bishop of Jerusalem. Social emancipation was a fact of life, but legal disabilities took time to disappear. Until 1858 the Christian oath kept Jews out of Parliament and not until the end of the century was Judaism officially recognised in the armed forces.

    Jews were merchants and professionals, lawyers, physicians, stockbrokers, even writers. Many anglicised their surnames. Beth Din minutes record predictable names such as Cohen, Levy, Benjamin and Nathan, but also Baker, Butcher, Lewis and Jones. Those who could afford it sent their sons to tutors or boarding schools on the Continent or in the provinces; there were even schools for girls. In London, Jews supported University College School, the City of London School, etc., where English instruction was axiomatic. The great public schools did not yet accept Jews as teachers or students. On the other hand, prosperous families whom writers dub The Cousinhood – the Goldsmids, Cohens, Rothschilds and Montefiores – were leaders in both national and Jewish life.

    Middle- and upper-class Jewish anglicisation received a public accolade in 1855 when Sir David Salomons was elected Lord Mayor of London and The Times announced that at last there was “a Lord Mayor who could speak the Queen’s English without murdering it”. The Jewish Chronicle decided that with Salomons’ Lord Mayoralty, the Jewish community had “come of age”. Salomons, despite his connections with the Montefiores and Rothschilds, had risen high on his own merits, and he spoke English better than many leading gentiles.

    The Jews were still thought of as foreigners but whatever the outsiders said, the Jews themselves felt English and most were now English-born. The author of A Peep into the Synagogue even wanted Hebrew to be edged out of the synagogue ritual, but neither the chief rabbi nor the lay leaders would go that far.


    In the early 19th century the Jewish schools broadened their curriculum and began to teach in English. The Sephardi schools had already given some secular lessons – the Sephardi Gates of Hope School, opened in 1664, predated many of the Christian schools – but now taught in English. The Ashkenazim became more positive towards secular studies and English became the language of instruction, largely due to Hyman Hurwitz and EP Marks.


    The synagogues couched their rules in the language with which their congregants were familiar. A study of the rules tells us a great deal about the community. Rarely does an English sentence appear in the early years. Even if regulations were formulated in English, such as the shared negative policy of making proselytes, needed to be proclaimed in the synagogue, the announcement was made in Portuguese or Yiddish as the case might be. English first appeared in the Great Synagogue account books in 1771. Rules were printed in English by the Great Synagogue Talmud Torah in 1788. The Sephardim added an English translation to their Ascamot (rules) in 1781 and from 1829 issued a full English text. A Sephardi fund for orphan girls had its rules in English from 1814. Great Synagogue rules were in Hebrew and Yiddish until 1827, when an English text was added to one in “pure Hebrew”, the latter “that it may be understood by… foreigners”, presumably immigrants. The New Synagogue and some provincial communities used English rules earlier than this. Nathan Marcus Adler sent regulations in English to congregations all over the Empire in 1847.


    As the Board of Deputies was originally a Sephardi body, the minutes and meetings were originally in Portuguese. Once the Ashkenazim became involved in the latter 18th century, English was used for internal communications and official records. Both groups were increasingly of English birth or upbringing and despite their conflicts they spoke jointly as “Natural-born Subjects of His Majesty” – for example, against the requirement of oaths “On the true faith of a Christian”.

    The Sephardim kept minutes in English from 1819, sometimes reverting to Portuguese. The Ashkenazim tended to use Yiddish, and minutes in English were often written in Hebrew characters. In 1807 it was decided that in any conflict between the English and the Yiddish version of Great Synagogue minutes, the English prevailed. From 1815 the minutes were solely in English. Hirschell’s Beth Din used Hebrew minutes, though English words crept in; divorces gave civil as well as Hebrew names and often the parties’ surnames and places of residence.


    Synagogue announcements were made by the Sephardim in Portuguese until 1848, despite a decision 20 years earlier to use English. At the Great Synagogue they switched to English about 1827, but when Sabbath times were no longer announced in Yiddish there was uproar. The New Synagogue introduced English earlier as did the Western Synagogue in about 1807. Until about 1845 synagogal honours were auctioned at Ashkenazi synagogues in Yiddish.


    Community correspondence fluctuated between Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish, or English if the other party was a gentile. MJ Raphall was Hirschell’s English secretary; Hirschell himself sometimes had discussions with public figures in the vernacular. Some communal leaders could handle letters in Hebrew. A few gentile aristocrats even used Hebrew, such as the Duke of Sussex, who wrote to Rabbi Abraham Belais in Hebrew and was regarded as Hirschell’s friend. Once Adler became chief rabbi in 1845, his letters were generally in English.


    At first there was little preaching, least of all in English. The rare patriotic sermons were translated and printed in pamphlet form. Hebrew prayers for important events said poetically what a sermon would say in prose. But there was agitation for vernacular “lectures”, both as an educational medium and to show Jewish respectability. The pioneer preacher, about 1810, was Tobias Goodman of London and Liverpool. The emergent Jewish press welcomed vernacular sermons, though these were often not in the synagogue itself or on Sabbath mornings. Most preachers were self-educated; some knew the classics and modelled themselves on Christian preachers. Some had problems with English. The JC asked readers to bear with Herman Hoelzel of the Hambro’ Synagogue, “however defective in the pronunciation and the mode of English elocution”.

    DW Marks of the Reform congregation argued that “In a country like England, where popular oratory is regarded as a national characteristic… a much severer standard of criticism is brought to bear upon the speaker”. As late as 1851 the JC noted that the Great Synagogue had secured as second reader “the efficient services of an Englishman”, AL Green. Nathan Marcus Adler began his English incumbency with a sermon, though in German, with a concluding prayer in English. Barnard Van Oven prefaced his translation by offering “this English version of Dr Adler’s admirable Discourse to the Members of his Congregations who are unacquainted with the German Language. It is hoped that they may be thus enabled to appreciate the piety, good sense, logical precision, and kindly feelings of their reverend Pastor”. Adler apologised at the Hambro’ Synagogue in 1845 that he “could not address them in their native tongue”, acknowledging that they were English-speakers. When he spoke at the New Synagogue the JC noted that some or many congregants did not understand German. Artom’s inaugural sermon was in French. He said, “You, who among this congregation may understand the language in which I am now speaking, I entreat you to listen to me attentively…” Before long he too was preaching in English to large congregations.


    When the Great Synagogue was rededicated in 1766, “the prayer for their Majesties and the Royal Family, which was always read in Hebrew, was at this time pronounced by the Chief Rabbi in English”. Regular services were in Hebrew. There were no English translations as yet (the first Siddur translation, into Italian, was printed in Hebrew characters, but English Jews needed translations in Latin letters because they often lacked familiarity with the Hebrew alphabet). Isaac Pinto’s Sephardi version of 1766 was published in New York because the London elders feared that translations would edge out Hebrew. The Ashkenazi prayers were translated in 1738 by “Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, Gent” (Abraham Mears, an apostate) followed by Levi Alexander and others. A standard version was by Simeon Singer in the 1890s, though it was too high-falutin for some.


    Events such as the missionary onslaught, the Reform secession, the Damascus Affair, and the Emancipation campaign made a Jewish paper a necessity. It had to be in English to accommodate the community’s growing anglicisation. Two papers emerged, the Voice of Jacob and the Jewish Chronicle. They had the additional result, according to Israel Finestein, of piercing the secrecy and self-satisfaction of the lay leaders and leading to more democracy.


    English was used for loyal addresses to royalty, as well as for approaches to Government and manifestos about Jewish rights. The Great Synagogue asked the government in the late 18th century to restrict the immigration of poor Jews who would become a burden on charity funds. A sign that the community was losing its “foreign” stigma is seen in the 1820s when petitions seeking the removal of Jewish disabilities stress that the signatories are native-born Britishers. Polemics with non-Jews had to be in English; some were pamphlets, whilst others took book form such as Levi Alexander’s Hebrew Ritual, dedicated to the Duke of Kent, “notwithstanding, your goodness of heart may have placed you at the head of a Society, of seemingly opposite principles”. The book refutes “a glaring misrepresentation Dr Prideaux has made, in his Connections of the Old and New Testament”. Internally there were robust exchanges, later published, between Adler and Marks on subjects such as the Oral Law and the second days of the festivals, though by the 1890s the Orthodox/Reform divide had lost its rancour.


    By mid-19th century there were poets, novelists and even didactic writers in English, including women (Anna Maria Goldsmid, Grace Aguilar, Charlotte Montefiore, Celia and Marion Moss and Miriam Mendes Belisario) but there were few significant Judaica scholars. Apart from sermons, books on Judaism tended to be translations, either of classics such as the Mishnah or books on Judaism first published in other languages. Morris Raphall and David Aaron de Sola made translations from Hebrew, and Anna Maria Goldsmid and Joshua Van Oven from French and German. The existence of women writers was significant. The upper echelons of Jewry valued women’s literary, musical and artistic accomplishments. But social mores gave women’s education little priority. Women’s eminence in academic, scientific, professional, commercial and public life lay far in the future.


    The Jewish agenda had its limitations. The acquisition of refined English was the path to political, social and cultural emancipation, but even the more articulate and educated strata took little part in the ethical and intellectual movements of the time. Individuals were involved in campaigns as varied as animal welfare and charitable relief, but scientific and economic controversies aroused little Jewish response. The Hebrew Observer remarked on the absence of Jews from “movements in this country for the preservation of peace, the spread of temperance, the abolition of slavery… which are of universal interest and which, if conducted in an unsectarian spirit, deserve the united support of all men, whether Jew, Christian, Mahomedan (sic) or Hindu” (quoted in John Mills, The British Jews, 1853, pp.330-331). Political emancipation was a priority that dare not be compromised.


    In the early 19th century a series of literary societies bravely offered English-speaking cultural stimulus. The first was the Society for the Cultivation of the Hebrew Language and Literature in 1830. Founded in 1842, the Association for the Promotion of Jewish Literature became the Jews’ and General Literary and Scientific Institution, with a library and lecture hall in the former New Synagogue in Leadenhall Street. In 1851 the Hebrew Antiquarian Society began; at the same time NM Adler founded a Bet Midrash for Talmudists. Whilst never appealing to the masses, these institutions helped to counter the efforts of those who sought to vilify the name of Jew, by showing the Jews themselves the quality of Judaism.


    Minhag Anglia, the English Usage, was not only a liturgical system but a corporate ethos. It was marked by English pragmatism without too much theology or philosophy. Its terminology was English, mostly adapted from the environment. Clergy (wearing vestments and, later, clerical collars) were ministers, chazanim were readers or precentors, lay leaders were wardens, shammashim were beadles. The United Synagogue was the Jewish established church, the chief rabbi the Jewish Archbishop of Canterbury, the Singer siddur the Jewish Book of Common Prayer, the Jewish Chronicle the Jewish Times, the Board of Deputies the Jewish House of Commons. Not only the orthodox but the Reformers saw this as natural. In public, Jews sought to be fully English, and spoke English – often with plummy accents. But at home and “in-club”, many (at least the Ashkenazim) laced their English with Yiddish intonations and phrases.


    In case the above material has suggested a painless adoption of English speech and ways to which the Jews living in England were all equally committed, a corrective must be added to show that outside the upper class it was a rocky road. BL Benas’s Records of the Jews of Liverpool, to which Dr Gabriel Sivan has drawn my attention, offers a picture which might have general applicability. When the 18th century gave way to the 19th, says Benas, “These newcomers were a heterogeneous compound of nationalities. The best internal evidence is to be found in their first book of laws or rules, bearing the date of 5560, or 1799. The language in which these laws are written has no exact counterpart, perhaps, in the heavens above or the earth beneath. It is a Yiddish-Hebrew-Polish-German jargon, of the very poorest kind; and from its phonetic expression of German, the inference would be that the writer probably was of Lithuanian or Russian origin. The characters are in the square Hebrew type, not cursive…”

    One of the laws says, “The Baalbattim must be assembled at an aseefa which is in loshon English a meeting, and the decisions are to be arrived at by a Roy Dias (=rov de’ot) which is in loshon English a majority…” It took decades for the Liverpool community to couch its rules in the Queen’s English. In the meantime, how far were Tobias Goodman’s English sermons understood by his audience?


    By mid-19th century the English language had decisively conquered the community, broadening from a linguistic to a cultural movement, so that English Jews were not only in but of England, believing that “British was best”. The fact that in some ways it all had to start again at the end of the century with the coming of the refugees from the pogroms is another story, and the commonalities and differences need their own analysis.

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