he uproar over the so-called “Jew Bill” died down as quickly and completely as it had started up. Immigration, now overwhelmingly of Ashkenazim from central and eastern Europe -- Germany, Poland, Bohemia – resumed, to slow down considerably only during the wars following the French Revolution. The Jewish population of England, estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 in the mid-eighteenth century, mostly living in London, had risen by the early years of the nineteenth century to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 in London and 5,000 to 6,000 in the provinces (Endelman, Jews of Britain, 41; Newman, 1; Roth, History 225). The Sephardim continued on their path of integration into English society. The majority of the Ashkenazim, belonging to a lower social stratum, were far less assimilated. The Prussian historian Wilhelm von Archenholz drew a sharp distinction between the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi communities in his Picture of England, containing a Description of the Laws, Customs and Manners of England of 1797: “Dress, language, manners, cleanliness, politeness, everything distinguishes them, much to the advantage of the former, who have little to distinguish them from Christians” (quoted Hyamson, 300). Still, among the Ashkenazim too, as noted earlier, there were wealthy and successful exceptions. The historian Cecil Roth tells of “an immigrant from Silesia, who at the outset of his career corresponded with his parents in Judeo-German and was anxious for the welfare of the religious institutions of his birthplace,” yet “could develop within twenty years into a staid British merchant, with his sons married to English girls – one a sea-captain and another in the colonial service, destined to be buried in Bath Abbey” (History, 225; Anglo-Jewish Letters, 189-91).
Captain Alexander Schomberg by William Hogarth. 1873. Courtesy the National Maritime Museum. Click on image to enlarge it.
The case of Alexander Schomberg, son of a German-Jewish doctor, Meyer Löw Schomberg who had settled in England around 1720, is no less striking. The young Schomberg converted to Christianity, joined the Navy in 1743, became a captain in 1757, played an important part in the capture of Quebec in 1759, and was knighted in 1777. His portrait, painted by William Hogarth in 1763, is in the- National Maritime Museum. The super-wealthy and unconverted Goldsmids (originally from Holland) and Rothschilds (originally from Germany) contributed significantly to the financing of the wars against Napoleon.
Wealthy Jews continued to build or buy up elegant country houses and to move their London homes into the more fashionable sections of the West End (Endelman, Jews of Georgian England, 56-57). This resulted -- as it was no doubt intended to do – in their establishing ever closer ties to their Christian gentry neighbours, but also to growing detachment from the Jewish community as a whole, increasing use of English in communal life, even in the synagogue, and efforts to make the religious service itself less “foreign” and more “dignified.” It also led to reduced attendance at synagogue services, a decline in Jewish learning, less strict observance of Jewish law, a diminution of the role and authority of the rabbinate, and an increase in the number of conversions. Upper-class English Jews did not embrace German Reform Judaism. As Todd Endelman explains, even those who had distanced themselves from traditional Judaism still maintained, for the most part, “a nominal allegiance to the ideas and the institutions of orthodoxy and simply ignored those elements that were an obstacle to their enjoyment of life in this world. They were, to use a paradoxical phrase, non-observant orthodox Jews. Like the majority of property-owning Englishmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were content to remain within the bosom of the established church (or synagogue) without giving much time or thought to the demands of their formal Jewish identity” (Jews of Georgian England, 134; also ch. 4, “Gentlemen Jews: The Acculturation of the Anglo-Jewish Middle Class,” and the summary account of the “entry of the Jews into the life of the English nation,” 248-49; see also Roth, History of the Jews of England, 226-27).
In some cases, Enlightenment ideas did lead to explicit scepticism or deism. “By the 1830s the number of Jewish Deists and sceptics had multiplied considerably,” according to Endelman. However, these “opponents of traditional Judaism were not a vocal or well-organized group. They rarely ventured into print and never undertook any campaign to embarrass the orthodox camp. [. . .] In all likelihood, many of those who were branded as Deists by the traditional camp did not deserve the name but were merely religiously apathetic, having given up traditional worship and ritual from a desire for social conformity” (Jews of Georgian England 150-51).
There was, however, around the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in the early decades of the nineteenth, a notable upsurge in published arguments in defence of Jews or in favour of emancipation by both English Christians and English Jews. Jews also began participating in the general culture of the nation more actively and broadly than in the past, and not simply in trade and finance. As this development cannot but have been a significant factor in the emancipation debates leading up to the removal in 1858 of the last disability affecting English Jews, a number of instances of it will be described here in some detail and at some length.
Endelman, Todd M. The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Endelman, Todd M. Jews of Georgian England 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979.
Newman, Aubrey. “Anglo-Jewry in the 18th Century: A Presidential Address.” Jewish Hisorical Society of England, Transactions and Miscellanies, 27 (1978-80): 1-10.
Hayamson, Albert M. A History of the Jews in England. London: Chatto & Windus, for the Jewish Historical Society of England, 1908.
Roth, Cecil. Ed. Anglo-Jewish Letters (1158-1917). London: Soncino Press, 1938.
Roth, Cecil. A History of the Jews in England, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.
Last modified 19 July 2020