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"A Rocky Road" by Abraham Levy: Reminiscences and moral appeal provide important warnings and hopes

The endless public debates over the summer involving Britain’s Jews have been increasingly bitter, divisive, alarmist and sometimes extreme. Apart from the ongoing battle between the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Jeremy Corbyn, there was so much Jew-against-Jew mud-slinging involving Israeli actions on the Gaza border that the United Jewish Israel Appeal felt obliged to call a meeting at London’s Jewish community centre in a failed attempt to promote civility.

It may be an illusion to look back to days of greater tolerance and moderation within Anglo-Jewry. However, I found considerable comfort in reading A Rocky Road (Halban Publishers, £20), Abraham Levy’s recent memoir of his half-century as rabbi of the UK’s oldest Jewish congregation. It turns out to be far more important than the standard rabbinical autobiography. It is significant at two different levels — for its insight into the workings of the Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) Jewish congregation, whose main synagogue at Bevis Marks in the City of London has been in continuous operation since 1701, and for its reflections on the increasingly divided character of Jewish religious life in the UK and, by implication, in much of the Diaspora.

Though Jews like to say that they are exceptionally argumentative (“two Jews, three opinions”), their internal bickering is little different from many other narrow communities, whether schools, churches or Oxbridge colleges. London’s Spanish and Portuguese congregation, formed when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to Britain following their expulsion in 1290, has played a distinguished role in the life of the metropolis. It has nurtured merchant statesmen such as Sir Moses Montefiore, the economist David Ricardo, the pioneer boxer Daniel Mendoza, Haham Moses Gaster, who played a leading role in the events leading to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the Bletchley Park codebreakers Ernest Ettinghausen, Richard Barnett and Miriam Rodrigues-Pereira. Sephardi Jews were responsible for introducing fried fish to London, a sabbath dish soon to become the apparently indigenous staple of fish and chips.

Calm, open self-government was never the strong point of the Kahal (congregation). It was the quarrelsomeness of the Mahamad, the ruling junta, which led Isaac Disraeli in 1817 to terminate his membership and to have his son Benjamin baptised, thereby enabling him, before Jewish emancipation, to become MP, Conservative leader and Prime Minister. During the next century and a half, and indeed to the present day, oligarchic congregational rule persisted and with it bitter power struggles.

 Levy did well to survive, though not unbruised. He gives a grandstand view of a series of postwar crises, both among the Sephardim and in the wider Anglo-Jewish world. They include the alleged heresies that led in the 1960s to the exclusion from the modern orthodox Ashkenazi United Synagogue rabbinate of Dr Louis Jacobs and to the formation of the Masorti (conservative) movement in Britain. Though his sympathies were with Rabbi Jacobs, and though he reveals that he seriously considered the offer to succeed him, he was criticised at the time for conforming with the ban on the controversial rabbi.
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