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To What Extent Did First and Second Generation Jewish Migrants in Britain Retain Their Cultural Identity?

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To what extent did first and second generation Jewish migrants in Britain retain their cultural identity?

The latter decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw Britain became the permanent home for thousands of Jewish immigrants hailing from Eastern Europe. Fleeing from religious persecution and economic hardship, Jews settled in a handful of locations throughout Britain creating their own neighbourhoods notably in the East End of London. This was a unique form of migration as Judaism was not just a religion but a distinctive way of life and these immigrants were united in their own cultural background which they brought over from the Pale of Settlement. Their cultural identity was conspicuous in the form of religious practices, occupation, language, dress and education, all entirely different from Britain. This essay will discuss the extent to which the immigrant Jews and their children retained this identity. Primarily, the cultural identity which the first generation brought over from their homeland will be identified followed by the extent to which they retained this identity in their settling period through religion, occupation and their general daily life. This shall be contrasted with how the children of Jewish migrants responded to the pressures of Anglicisation through a platform of education and youth clubs which were set up for them. Ultimately, the result of the conditions which the Jews experienced over the first thirty years in Britain shall be analysed in exploring the renovation in cultural identity of the Jewish community over the interwar years. It is clear that this great migration was integral in the history of Britain and Jews alike.

Prior to the mass immigration of Russian Jews from 1881, there was already an established Jewish community in Britain. In 1655 Jews were granted readmission following their expulsion from Britain 350 years previously and a steady trickle of migration followed. By the nineteenth century they had established themselves willingly, 'From the outset of their arrival there was considerable and continuously expanding social emancipation. Jews mingled socially in all strata of society'. This Anglicised, middle-class communtity of Jews numbered 46,000 in 1882 and 'was headed by 100 families of great wealth and social prominence'. Over the next forty years however, the number of Jews in Britain grew greatly as events took place in Eastern Europe which was 'sufficient to prompt Jewish Migration on an unprecedented scale'. It is impossible to know the exact number of East European immigrants who settled however from 1881 to 1914 approximately 150,000 Jews fled their homes to live in Britain. A main cause of this migration was the failire of the Jewish Economy to grow in line with the substantial rise in Jewish Population, 'Between 1800 and 1900, the Jewish population in Russia shot from one million to five million, exclusive of the one million who emmigrated'. Furthermore the anti-Jewish policy of the Czarist autocracy meant that the Jews were geographically immobile and were trapped in the Pale of Settlement. Therefore they were unable to move to cities and regions where industrialisation was creating new oppurtunites. With the assasination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, a wave of Pogroms took place in the Pale of Settlement making 'the Jewish cup of troubles overflow'. Therefore the pogroms of 1881 were more of a catalyst than a cause. In line with this, the development of steam ships in Europe was a key external factor which made long range travel easier. These factors caused a huge, collective migration of townsfolk however the cultural identity which they had aquired under czarist rule meant that they had no industrial skills and the Jews had been barred from skilled trades and higher education. Nevertheless, the Jewish immigrants also transported a strong cultural identity which centred on religious traditions and family.

From 1881 Jewish immigrants arrived in their thousands at ports across Britain such as London, Southampton, Grimsby and Hartlepool. On arrival these immigrants had a tendency to seek out landsleit who were family, friends or any Jewish connections. This resulted in the establishment of tight knit, distinctive communties of Jewish immigrants who shared a collective backgroud from the same area in the Pale of Settlement. Inner city locations proved most popular like the East End in London, Leylands in Leeds and the Strangeways in Manchester. This is illustrated by the sheer population growth of Jews in these areas, 'In 1880 there was approximately 46,000 Jews established in London, by the close of the nineteenth century this had trebled to 135,000...with the majority living in two square miles of the East End'. By settling in these communities, the Jews were recreating an environment were they could slowly adapt to the difficulties of life in a generally hostile country while being surrounded by memories of their Der Haim. A map produced by George Arkell in 1899 of the East End illustrates the dense Jewish population in the areas around Whitechapel, Spitalfieds and Mile End and emphasises the level of migration which occurred over twenty years. However as more and more immigrants flooded into areas which were already characterised with overcrowding and poverty, conditions only deteriorated further. Additionally, the increased demand for accommodation caused a rise in rents. Jack London, an American Journalist who resided in the East End for several months, describes the conditions he witnessed, 'East London is such a Ghetto, where the rich and the powerful do not dwell, the traveller cometh not, and where two million workers swarm, procreate and die'. Conversely, Arie Dubnov states how Israel Zangwill, who was a renowned Jewish chronicler of the East End, criticised the West End Anglo-Jewry 'for looking down on the immigrants who were considered to be foreigners as long as they did not undergo a process of cultural Anglicisation'. This clearly reiterates that on settling, the first generation of immigrant Jews attempted to retain their cultural identity however amidst terrible conditions resulting from mass immigration.

Through these large communities of immigrants, cultural identity was retained in a number of different areas. A familiar structure which was established provided them with security and stability in an unknown land and a fundamental area of this was through religion. The traditional, religious activities such as the weekly Sabbath festival provided an important touchstone for the community. Furthermore, being close to a synagogue was important as it was 'the primary cell of their social life'. Gerald Parsons further illustrates the importance of a synagogue as 'a social,

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