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Jews in 19th-Century England
An Essay by Louis Marks

Louis Marks, the producer of Daniel Deronda, discusses a theme central to George Eliot's novel: Judaism in England in the 1860s. He explores the themes represented in the drama and the reality of cultural and religious historical fact.

When George Eliot decided on a Jewish theme to inspire her last novel, Jews in Britain were a rarity. Given that only about 30,000 Jews lived in England at the time, it is fair to say that the great majority of Englishmen knew about Jews only through unflattering fictional caricatures like Shylock or Fagin or through their 2,000-year Gospel presentation role as deicides. The Oxford Dictionary reporting popular usage listed the verb "to jew," defined as "to cheat or overreach." Eliot herself summed up the widespread view as one of "pelting contempt."

Even so, the situation of Jews here was enviable when compared with that of their co-religionists in Europe. Jews had been readmitted to England by Oliver Cromwell in 1655 after four centuries of exclusion. Remarkably, he assigned them no inferior legal status, as in Europe, so that although they were the butt of deeply ingrained prejudice, they were penalized officially only by the same restrictions as any other nonconformists. Like Catholics, they were excluded from higher education and Parliament.

The return to England was led by Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent (Sephardim) who had been expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella after 1492 and settled in the Netherlands. Many of these were wealthy families with traditions in commerce and finance as well as scholarship and culture. They were quickly followed by poorer Jews from communities in Holland and Germany (Ashkenazim) who came here for greater freedom and safety. Most started life here as peddlers and hawkers but later moved into tailoring, furniture, and shoe making, a few moving up into the professions. About three-fifths settled in London; the rest scattered in the provinces.

By the mid-19th century, this mixed population of Jews, widely differentiated in terms of social status, education, and aspirations, had formed themselves into coherent communities which expressed themselves strongly in terms of education, charity, and religious practice. They also saw their future largely as playing an increasing role in English life while clinging to their identity as Jews. However, sensitive to popular sentiment, they generally strove to keep a low profile, fearful of drawing too much attention to themselves.

But there were high flyers. In 1855 the first-ever Jewish lord mayor of London, David Salomons, was elected, and a year later Jews were declared eligible to stand for Parliament. However, Benjamin Disraeli, a Jew by descent, would hardly have enjoyed his brilliant political career had he not been baptized into the Christian faith at his father's wish.

It was in this context that the concept of the "Jewish Englishman" was born, expressing the double pride of being a member of a distinctive people with a long and unique history as well as an inhabitant of the most prosperous, enlightened, democratic, and tolerant country in the world. In the novel, the shopkeeper Ezra Cohen and his family reflect this attitude in contrast to their lodger Mordecai, who sees assimilation as a craven abandonment of the true Jewish destiny, which is to return to their biblical homeland and recover what has been lost in the 1,800 years of dispersal, persecution, and fear in the "Diaspora."

Eliot portrays Mordecai as a somewhat fanatical visionary figure with little basis in reality, and some critics have seen this as a weakness in the book. But she almost certainly based him on a real person. Emmanuel Deutsch was a Jewish scholar who had come to England from Germany to work in the Jewish Manuscripts Department of the British Museum. In 1867, an article of his published in the influential Quarterly Review on the Talmud -- the fundamental source of all Jewish religious, legal, and moral life -- created a sensation and was repeatedly reprinted. He and Eliot became close friends.

It was Deutsch who introduced Eliot to the Zionist idea, then in its infancy. There were other Jewish writers, such as Moses Hess, who were secularizing the centuries-old Jewish yearning for a return to the Holy Land into a political program. They were voices in the wilderness. But within five years of the publication of Daniel Deronda, events in Russia produced a volcanic upheaval in Jewish life through Europe which was to have far-reaching effects.

In 1881 Czar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated, and Jewish revolutionaries were blamed. Instantly a series of pogroms began. Hundreds of Jews were murdered, creating widespread panic. This sparked a mass emigration of Jews fleeing west in search of a new life. Most set their sights on America, but many never made it further than England, where in a few years the Jewish population multiplied tenfold.

However, a small but significant number of Russian Jews decided not to travel west, but to go south instead, to Palestine. There were longstanding Jewish religious communities in Jerusalem and the Galilee, but the new pioneers had a wider vision: to recreate the historic Jewish homeland. Eliot's last great novel was to prove more prophetic than she could ever have imagined.

Daniel Deronda producer, and author of this essay, Louis Marks has a long and distinguished career with BBC Drama. His first major production for the BBC was The Lost Boys (1978), which starred Ian Holm as J.M. Barrie and which was widely acclaimed. His association with Andrew Davies (screenwriter) began more than 30 years ago, and their collaborations include Fearless Frank (1979), a riotous account of the scandalous life of Frank Harris, and Masterpiece Theatre's Middlemarch (1994), which restored the period serial as a key element of BBC drama production. Producer of more than 60 major dramas, Marks has worked with other key talents, among them Jack Clayton (Memento Mori, 1991), Harold Pinter (The Hothouse, 1987, and The Trial, 1992) and Mike Leigh (Grown-ups, 1982), and actors including Anthony Hopkins (Little Eyolf, 1984, and The Trial), Claire Bloom and John Gielgud (Oedipus Rex, 1983), Nigel Hawthorne (The Misanthrope, 1980), Michael Gambon and Judi Dench (Ghosts, 1984), and Ben Kingsley (Silas Marner, 1986).

Essays + Interviews:
Production Notes | Jews in 19th-Century England | George Eliot

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