Most institutions of the British Jewish community are historic, beginning in 1760 with the Board of Deputies, which emerged out of a body of representatives of the Spanish and Portuguese and Ashkenazi communities. The rest of the establishment came in the 19th century and by the end of the Victorian era the communal structure was firmly in place. The historians have traced the creation and evolution of its institutions, most recently in Meir Persoff’s book on the Chief Rabbinate. But institutional history is not the whole story. Much more needs to be said about the rise of the ethos of the community, in particular the outlook known as Minhag Anglia, “The English Usage”. It is not certain who coined this term, but as a phrase for the essential Englishness of the community it sums up the characteristic face that was British Jewry until at least the late 20th century.
Late 18th century British Jewry was neither largely native-born nor English in all its ways, though some of the upper crust already had country houses, art collections and other English habits. Thinking and living as respectable Englishmen was the aspiration of all classes of Jews. Its achievement would be marked with Jewish political emancipation, but en route the English synagogue had to become more decorous and dignified, enabling “needful attention”, said the Jewish Chronicle in 1841, to “be devoted to the acquisition of an English style”.
As well as synagogue buildings becoming impressive and clean, and services being well conducted, there had to be regular sermons in the vernacular, and even the melodies had to follow a uniform pattern. The content of the liturgy was stabilised first in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and later, on the appointment of Nathan Marcus Adler as chief rabbi, in the Ashkenazi synagogues. The Ashkenazim turned into a Jewish version of the Church of England. Clergy were ministers called “The Reverend” and wore clerical collars, chazanim were precentors, shammashim were sextons or beadles, and the lay leaders were wardens. The founding of the United Synagogue in 1870 strengthened the analogy, and the Singer Siddur and Routledge Machzor provided Books of Common Prayer. The chief rabbi was a Jewish Archbishop of Canterbury with almost archiepiscopal privileges; as early as 1846 the Jewish Chronicle said unequivocally, “Our duty is to obey. The most Rev. (sic) the Chief Rabbi should be invested with the authority due to his high office”. At the suggestion of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler, who wore bishop’s gaiters, called himself “The Very Reverend”, though this was a mere archdeacon’s title and one wonders why he did not use the term “Right Reverend” like a bishop, or “Most Reverend” like an archbishop.
More important, however, than the outward trappings of an Anglicised (or Anglicanised) Judaism is the outlook summed up by the JC in 1871 when it wrote, “We Jews of England are not only in England; we are of England. We are not only British Jews, we are Jewish Englishmen. It is our boast and our pleasure and our pride that we can claim and fulfil the duties of Britons without sacrificing our Judaism, without neglecting its observances and without abandoning its sacred hopes.”
English Jews were willingly bound up with their Queen and her far-flung empire. They prayed for the Queen every Sabbath and were happy when their Prince of Wales attended a Jewish wedding. They regarded it as right and proper that the chief rabbi should mix with royalty, church and gentry. Even the “foreign” Jews who regarded the chief rabbi as insufficiently orthodox and the “liberal” Jews as insufficiently elastic, respected him because the goyim did. With all their varying views about his Beth Din, no-one would dream of criticising him for mixing with Edward VII’s court circle, though it must be said that he had his red lines. He was no willing captive of the leaders of national opinion and when Jews or Judaism were attacked he had the courage to take up the cudgels for his people (“for defence”, as he put it, “not for offence”).
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Minhag Anglia was restricted to the Ashkenazim or the orthodox. The Sephardim also believed in being “of England”, though they did not go as far as the Ashkenazim in adopting Anglican styles; they still maintained their archaic Ladino terminology such as mahamad (synagogue lay leaders), levantadores (raisers of the Torah scroll) and finta (membership fees). The Reform named their congregation a Synagogue of British Jews, not Spanish/Portuguese or German/Dutch, and they lacked nothing in their determination that Anglo-Jewry would be integrated into British life. Simeon Singer even suggested that the Orthodox/Reform dichotomy was a Jewish reflection of the “high church”/”low church” division. The long period of relative stability and prosperity during Victoria’s reign enhanced and encouraged Jewish integration and it gave the community pleasure to hear that they were “surprisingly popular” amongst gentiles and “just like us Christians”, though the non-Jews “cordially disliked” the foreign Jews (as did many of the longer established Jews who thought the newcomers were uncultivated and uncultured).
Minhag Anglia believed in everything being seemly and decorous, individuals being well-bred and polite, habits being civilised and cultured. Children who gained prizes at Jewish schools took it for granted that they would receive “Stories of King Arthur” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy”. Britain and its ways were the ideal. Even the refugees from the Eastern European pogroms regarded Anglicisation as a (or the) leading aim of their schooling, unworried that they would exemplify what Israel Zangwill said of Esther Ansell in Children of the Ghetto, “She was an English girl; far keener than her pride in Judas Maccabeus was her pride in Nelson and Wellington”…
It was a dream and a reality. Why it fell apart is another story.