Jewish communities

Jewish communities
   Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. It is a religion which prescribes rules for its followers, rules which are founded on interpretations of scripture and on universal moral principles. In modern times, the small Jewish population in Britain was swollen by large numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe at the start of the century, and then by a more limited immigration from Nazioccupied Europe before the start of the Second World War. The majority of British Jews follow Ashkenazi (European) rather than Sefardi (Oriental) rites and liturgies.
   On the whole, the experience of the Jewish community in Britain has been a positive one, with many Jews reaching high positions in British political and cultural life and becoming successful in the commercial and professional spheres. This has enabled the community to move out of the poorer inner city areas which they first inhabited to the more prosperous suburbs, and to assimilate closely with the indigenous British population. Judaism as a faith is based on the Torah, which can either refer to the first five books of the Bible, or to the whole of the Hebrew Bible, or even the body of Jewish law and practice. The Torah is based on the covenant which was established between God and Israel, and in its widest sense it has developed into an all-enveloping way of life. Jews take a variety of attitudes to their traditions. Almost half of the Jewish population in Britain are members of an orthodox community, which means that they generally adhere to a traditionalist ethos with respect to religion. They accept that the Torah is the direct revelation of the word of God and the divine will, and all the laws and regulations which have developed are representations of the way of life which God wants Jews to follow. This involves a strict set of rules concerning prayer, religious holidays and the sabbath, including rules about what sorts of food are kosher (holy or acceptable) and even what combinations of cloth are permissible for a Jew to wear. Within orthodoxy there is considerable variety of practice, extending to the Hasidim who wear clothes reminiscent of eighteenth-century Poland and live in self-contained communities, to the more modern orthodox Jew who is in appearance indistinguishable from anyone else in Britain, yet who nonetheless obeys a strict set of rules in his or her behaviour. The centre of religious life is both the home and the synagogue; as orthodox Jews are not supposed to take transport on Sabbath and festivals, so they need to live within walking distance of a synagogue. This has led to areas of some British cities becoming strongly Jewish, with several synagogues and families living in close proximity and with kosher butchers and other shops catering for the specific requirements of the Jewish community.
   About 17 percent of the Jewish population are members of the Reform or Progressive movements, which regard divine revelation as changing and not something which can be captured perfectly within a system of legislation. The followers of these movements are less committed to traditional law and practice, and they pray not only in Hebrew but also in English. They tend to link their religion to the teachings of the prophets, which they interpret as coming close to modern forms of liberalism, and they do not discriminate between men and women with respect to religious roles. Thirty-six percent of the Jewish population is not a member of any synagogue at all. If there is one issue which can be said to worry the whole community, it is that of assimilation. The Jewish population has shrunk quite dramatically since the end of the last war, from around 450,000 to 300,000. This is largely due to intermarriage, and everincreasing numbers of Jews are marrying Gentiles.
   According to Jewish law, the child of a Jewish mother remains Jewish, but this is not the case if only the father is Jewish. In both cases, the children of such marriages are often not brought up within Judaism, and the parents may abandon such links as they have with their religion. In addition there are many Jews who are so assimilated into the local Gentile community that they follow few if any distinctive religious practices, and do not identify with the Jewish community or religion at all.
   While in overall numbers the size of the community is shrinking rapidly, in wealth and power it remains very successful. Educational achievement and income levels remain above the average, and the proportion of Jewish parliamen-tarians and ministers far exceeds their share of the population as a whole. Anti-semitism has been a persistent strain in British culture, but it has not succeeded in restraining the advance of the Jewish community in society. During the Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher it was said that there were more Estonians in the Cabinet than Etonians, a reference to the high proportion of Jewish cabinet ministers. There are many influential Jewish politicians in all major political parties, in the media, in academic life and commerce. Although the Jewish community tends to identity itself with Israel and is solidly Zionist, there has only been limited migration to Israel. As the community has become wealthier and more established, there is evidence that its voting patterns have moved to the right. This was sometimes also a response to growing antagonism on the Left towards Israel.
   The state of Israel is perhaps the strongest unifying factor in a very diverse community, but at other times there is often a great deal of internecine dispute, especially between the different religious organizations. The Chief Rabbi, for example, is only the head of the United Synagogue, not of the whole of the British Jewish community, and not even of the whole orthodox movement. Nonetheless, there is also often a strong feeling of belonging to a community, and as with many groups based on fairly recent immigration, considerable pride at the notable achievements of members of that community.
   Further reading
    Alderman, G. (1992) Modern British Jewry, Oxford: Oxford University Press (the standard discussion of the topic).
    Rubinstein, W. (1996) A History of the Jews in the Eng-lish-Speaking World: Great Britain, London: Macmillan (the best modern treatment of the topic).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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