LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Jeremy and Jeanine Ottman with their children
Jack and Katie and parents, Godfrey and Barbara Kaye
Date of photography: 15th September 2018
Living in north London, the Ottmans and Kayes are a fairly typical metropolitan Jewish family. They describe themselves as Orthodox but, like many other Jews who play important roles in some of the capital’s essential businesses and professions, they have had to find compromises: the seemingly inflexible and unchanging demands of traditional religious observance have had to be reconciled with the essential requirements of work and life in a modern city. They appear to have resolved this conundrum with some success. The UK’s Jewish community is smaller than a number of other ethnic groups, totalling about 300,000, with around two thirds of Jews living in and around the capital. During the Brexit Referendum campaign and in the period that followed the vote, many British people seemed to think they had been given licence to express all their pent-up prejudices and to voice their ingrained dislike of all those ‘johnny foreigners’. No Londoners with foreign blood in their veins failed to register this unwelcome change in the prevailing climate and, unsurprisingly, the Jewish community, though not themselves associated with migration from the EU, have felt the hostile winds of change too. Jeremy concludes: “I don’t have any worries personally, not at this very moment, but I do accept that the lessons of history teach us all to be cautious.”
This article was written at a time when, following the decision of the Referendum of June 2016, to exit from the European Union, this country seemed to many people more polarised than it had ever been before in living memory; however, I hope to show that if such polarisation was unfamiliar, it was certainly not without precedent. An intense debate was taking place about what the future of Britain was to be, now that the popular aspiration, enshrined in the loathsome, xenophobic slogan, ‘we want our country back’, might potentially be realised. Above all, the populace were allegedly obsessed with reclaiming the nation’s ability to control its own borders and preventing, or seriously limiting, the undesirable influx of foreigners, foreigners who, supposedly, took jobs from the indigenous population, sapped and overwhelmed essential public services, especially education, housing and the NHS, and threatened to change the UK into something our grandfathers would have certainly failed to recognise or, indeed, approve.
The resentment towards EU migrants, particularly those from eastern Europe, who had come to live and work in Britain, was intense and seemingly ubiquitous. Among these economic migrants were Romanians, Bulgarians, Czechs and Slovaks, but the Poles in particular, who’d arrived in the greatest numbers, were viewed with particular hostility - in a few short years, they had succeeded in making Polish England’s second language. During the Referendum campaign and in the period that followed the vote, thousands of people felt as if, almost overnight, they had been given licence to express all their pent-up prejudices and to voice their ingrained dislike of those ‘johnny foreigners’ whom they believed were stealing their jobs and lowering the working wage. Violence is never far behind such outpourings of hatred and several migrants were subject to brutal, indeed murderous, assaults on London’s streets - some had attracted this unwanted attention simply by speaking in their mother tongue in public. No Londoners with foreign blood in their veins could fail to register this unwelcome change in the prevailing climate and, unsurprisingly, the Jewish community, though not themselves in any way associated with immigration from the EU, could feel the hostile winds of change too.
Elsewhere in this project, I have written a substantial article about Muslim Londoners, who number around 700,000. Although long-established in many areas, they too have felt the rising tide of xenophobia, and attacks on members of their communities have been further amplified because of their perceived links to acts of Islamist terrorism. Muslims may be united by their faith but in other respects they are ethnically diverse peoples who come from many different parts of the world and whose cultures are often dissimilar. (It is perhaps worth noting, though, that this tide of hatred against ‘the other’, led to a marked increase in attacks on a panoply of minority groups, including the Jewish and the LGBT+ communities.)
The UK’s Jewish community is smaller, totalling some 300,000 altogether, with about two thirds of that number living in and around the capital. Sharing a common Middle Eastern ancestry, British Jews broadly derive from the two main branches of Jewry, the Ashkenazim, from central and eastern Europe (including the ultra-orthodox Haredim) and the Sephardim, from the Iberian Peninsula. Most continue to self-identify their ethnicity as Jewish, despite having developed as different enclaves in the Diaspora, and mostly they share a common culture, a common ancient history, and common adherence to the tenets of their religion (with the exception of secular Jews, of course) although linguistically, while the Ashkenazim had traditionally spoken Yiddish, the Sephardim communicated in a variation of Spanish, known as Ladino.
After 1066, William the Conqueror encouraged Jews to move to England from Normandy. While they were welcomed here initially, hostility towards the new immigrants grew slowly but steadily over the following decades, culminating in their expulsion in 1290. In the long interim period, however, they were granted freedom of movement and they were permitted to engage in trade, the medical professions, moneylending as well as working as labourers and clerks. They settled not only in London but in the main provincial centres too. Perhaps as a concomitant of the Crusader attacks on the Mohammedan infidels that raged in various parts of continental Europe, the twelfth century saw a deterioration in the relationships between Christians and Jews. In London, there were savage attacks on Jewish quarters, and Jews were required to wear white identity badges - a terrible augury indeed. In 1190, in York, the city’s Jews were trapped in the Clifford Tower and around 150 of them committed mass suicide in order to save themselves from a murderous mob. During the reign of Edward I, over 600 of London’s Jews were arrested and their property confiscated; they were imprisoned in the Tower of London and 260 of them were subsequently executed. This was ethnic cleansing in its truest, most brutal form.
Unexpectedly perhaps, during the Interregnum, presided over by Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector (1653 - 1658) there was actually a period of greater religious freedom and after almost four centuries of exile, Jews began to return to London, mostly as merchants. Despite the prevailing Puritanism of those times, they were permitted to worship according to the laws of their own religion and to have their own, discrete burial grounds. Many Sephardic Jews, who had previously been expelled from their historic settlements in southern Europe, crossed from Holland to London, where they opened a variety of small businesses, and even succeeded in erecting the first Sephardic synagogue in the City of London.
Many Ashkenazim followed this lead and, while they were generally less wealthy than their Mediterranean cousins, they carried on trade in fabric, clothes, jewellery and timepieces. Most notable amongst these were the Rothschilds, who would go on to build one of the world’s great financial empires. In 1692, the collective endeavour of the capital’s Ashkenazim achieved the building of the Great Synagogue, in Duke’s Place, in the City of London.
During the 18th century, the number of Jews establishing a home in England grew to 20,000, with a great many of these settled in London. While the majority remained poor, despite their hard work, many prospered and, with the benefit of higher levels of education, they began to be integrated into ‘society’. In 1817, the first Jewish school was founded at a time when the Reform Judaism movement was being imported from Germany; this aimed to modify religious practice so as to accommodate better the demands of modern, urban life. This was also the period during which many Jewish philanthropic organisations sprang up, including the famous Jewish Board of Guardians, set up in 1859 to assist the poor. But despite these changes, however integrated and respectable they were, Jews remained excluded from British politics up until 1858, when Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish MP to sit as a Member of Parliament - Benjamin Disraeli, who had been elected earlier, in 1837, was Jewish by birth but had converted to Anglicanism at the age of 12.
It was principally during the nineteenth century that London, and England as a whole, witnessed the greatest influx of Jewish immigrants, with Ashkenazi Jews fleeing from frequent pogroms in Russia and Poland. Over two million Jews fled from eastern Europe to all parts of the world and of these, 150,000 settled in Britain. Large numbers moved into East London, which had offered a home to the previous wave of mass immigration, the Huguenots, two centuries earlier.
Discussion about immigration, seen as a problem, is hardly out of today’s media but this is nothing new: the same was the case in 1905, when Parliament was moved to pass The Aliens Act. Then, just as now, the blame for every major social ill was placed squarely on the shoulders of outsiders, and phrases like, ‘pauper aliens’ and ‘the evil of immigration’ give a flavour of those times and resonate with the headlines we see in today’s gutter press. Unsurprisingly, Jews were high on the list of immigrants to be censured: they took jobs away from local people, caused overcrowding, undercut decent shopkeepers, and engendered squalid living conditions in the cities. By the start of WWI, these sorts of attitudes had brought immigration to Britain almost to a halt - except for the rich, of course, who will always succeed in buying their way into any country.
Despite their perceived ‘otherness’, a considerable number of young Jewish men signed up to join the British Army during the Great War yet, at the same time, any Jews who held German passports were interned as enemy nationals, alongside all the Italians, at Alexandra Palace and on the Isle of Man. What an irony that must have been: having fled from European pogroms, Jewish migrants found themselves locked up and seen as suspect in the very country that had offered them safe haven.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, in 1933, German Jews faced the destruction of their businesses and the confiscation of their property and their homes; they also forfeited most of their civil rights. Fearing the worst, many understandably attempted to flee the German Reich but few countries were willing to accept them, despite the fact that many German Jews were renowned as significant figures in the arts, in commerce, education, science and other important professions. As ever, all the rich, and all those who had connections overseas, successfully escaped. Although an estimated 60,000 managed to get to Britain, many were turned away, but in an extraordinarily humane initiative, between 1938 and 1939, around 10,000 Jewish children reached Britain via the now famous Kindertransport. Most would never see their parents again, many of whom perished in the concentration camps, and they were dispersed and adopted by settled Jewish families around the country, though many by Gentile families too.
Despite its substantial, pre-existing Jewish population, London was not exactly the safest place for incoming German Jews. The British Union of Fascists had been promoting anti-Semitic violence since 1932, culminating in a march by Oswald Moseley and his army of blackshirts and sympathisers through London’s, predominantly Jewish, East End. However, in what was an astonishing feat of communal bravado, this Fascist army was confronted by 10,000 ordinary people who blocked their way, brandishing the immortal slogan ‘They Shall Not Pass’. The violent clashes that ensued became known as ‘the Battle of Cable Street’.
During WWII, many of those who had successfully fled Nazi Germany would again be labelled ‘enemy aliens’, and once again, they were interned. Indeed, to our shame, some of the older children who came to the UK via the Kindertransport were also interned, being seen as suspect. Nevertheless, over 60,000 Jewish men and women were in active service during the War and, once the hostilities were over, Britain took in over 700 young survivors from the concentration camps. Many of these were to become prominent members of the community and would rise to become significant figures in the life of this great city of ours.
For this project, I had originally hoped to photograph a family of Haredi Jews, who are prominent in certain parts of London, like Stamford Hill. They are, after all, the most striking and arguably perhaps the most quintessentially Jewish. Succeeding in that would have been no mean feat, of course, so I decided instead to try to feature a modern Jewish family who would also be rather more representative of London’s heterogeneous Jewish community. I was thus very fortunate, towards the end of the project, to have had an introduction to just such a family - three generations of the Ottmans / Kayes.
Jeremy Ottman and his wife, Jeanine, kindly welcomed me to their comfortable, north London home. The house did not suggest to me overtly that I was entering a Jewish household: for one thing, my visit took place on a Saturday and I quickly learned that Jeremy and his son, Jack, were hoping we might conclude our business by four o’clock as they were keen to go to a football match. There might seem nothing exceptional in this, perhaps, but it was, after all, the Sabbath!
Jeremy and Jeanine live here with two of their children, twins Jack and Katie, aged 21, both of whom generously agreed to take part in the photography. The Ottmans’ eldest son, Nick, who is 25 and now lives independently, was unfortunately not able to be there on the day set for the photography. However, the Ottmans were joined by Jeanine’s parents, Godfrey and Barbara Kaye, who live nearby.
I decided to interview Jeremy first. He is in his late fifties, though looks much younger, and he has an open, welcoming personality, a clearly intelligent mind, and a delivery that suggests he is well used to situations where every word matters and where language must be used with the greatest care - he is a lawyer by training and it showed. He began by commenting first upon the Ottman household: “Milan, while I have no hesitation in describing our family as Orthodox - indeed, we belong to the Orthodox Synagogue - we don’t observe the Sabbath fully. You have to understand that there are many levels or variations of Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, are the most extreme, or should I say, the most pure? They would probably consider themselves bastions of Judaism and the way they live reflects their desire to adhere to and to cherish the faith. They would no doubt perceive us as virtually secular, but we certainly don’t regard ourselves as secular Jews, though admittedly, we are something of a mixture. We keep to traditional Judaism but we are also very westernised, very integrated and assimilated. We are also very pragmatic. We observe tradition, we attend synagogue, and we celebrate all the major festivals, like the Jewish New Year which we celebrated only a few days ago. However, if we were to adhere to the myriad of orthodoxies and rules that are prescribed, it would be a real challenge to live in the modern world at all or to run a business.” In this respect, the Ottmans are not atypical, as many Jewish families find it almost impossible to reconcile rigid religious orthodoxy with life and work in the 21st century.
Jeremy continues: “For example, the observation of the Sabbath: there are many people in the community who choose to observe the Sabbath strictly, and there is arguably no reason why I should not do that too; however, I don’t want to. Though picking and choosing is not permitted by Jewish orthodoxy and law, we do choose to deviate. Of course, having said that, I also choose to embrace our culture and I have the greatest respect for the history of our people; nevertheless, we are not strict observers of the Sabbath. I understand the origins of the Sabbath and the justification for it, and I respect those who observe it.”
“I was born in Manchester and we were quite a small family - I have only one sibling, my sister. I guess you could describe us as middle class: we lived in our own home and my father was a scientist. While my mother came from a working-class background, once she had raised her family, she went on to qualify as a teacher.”
“My grandmother came from Lithuania around 1910/11. Can you imagine: her parents, constantly fearing attacks from the Cossacks, sent her to England, to Nottingham in fact, as a girl of 12; she brought her two younger siblings with her, aged 9 and 6. Her parents had hoped to follow on, but they never did, and the children were never to see their parents again. Later on, they moved to Manchester. Unfortunately, I don’t know very much about my grandfather: all I do know is that he was a classic working-class man, and that he worked in a local factory. Around 1927, he met my grandmother and they got married in Manchester. As you might expect, they lived in the Jewish quarter of the city, though she travelled from there into Yorkshire, to work on a market. Lots of Jews lived in similar areas, congregating around the local synagogue, the hub of the local community. In these communities, they could get their breads and kosher foodstuffs, and that was also where they socialised. Though my grandfather didn’t speak Yiddish himself, this would almost certainly have been the language generally spoken in the community.” I asked Jeremy how observant they would have been but he replied simply: “I don't know much about that; it was before my time - my grandfather died when I was two - though I strongly suspect that they were just a traditional Jewish family. All I do remember from my early childhood is that my own parents did not keep the Sabbath.”
“When I was five, my father’s post with Shell was relocated to the South, so my parents had to leave Manchester and we moved to Kent, though it was really the outskirts of London. Coming from the North, they could not afford the prices in London proper, so suburbia was the only option. I went to the local primary school until I was 11, when I was successful in getting a scholarship to a local fee-paying independent school, Eltham College in Mottingham, south-east London. I studied there until I was 18. The school was founded for the sons of missionaries and was therefore very much a Christian establishment; however, while I was certainly one of the very few Jewish boys there, I wasn’t the only boy in the place not to be Anglo-Saxon - there was one black boy, the son of educated parents, one Indian boy, and one Arab student too. While I didn’t experience discrimination during my time in primary school, in my secondary school, I did start to feel that I was different; occasionally, I was reminded of this by the other boys.”
“From Eltham, I went up to Oxford, where I read Law at St John’s College. After completing my legal training and working as a junior solicitor in London, at the age of 29, I set up my own law practice which I have run right up to the present day. I always preferred to be my own boss,” Jeremy says with a broad smile. He married Jeanine in 1986, when he was 27, and they had three children, all of whom are very much adults now. Their eldest son, Nick, studied Law with French at Nottingham University, and he now works in the field of Digital Marketing, as an Accounts Director. Jack, who is 21, is studying languages at Bristol University, while Katie, his twin, is at Birmingham University, studying French and History.
This seemed to me an opportune moment to turn to Jeanine to ask her something about her own life and to give me her perspective on the life of their family.
She accordingly introduced herself: “You could almost describe me as a local girl, for I was born in the area we live in now. Though I have only one brother, both my mother and father came from much larger families, which was the norm in those days. You would have called us a middle-class family, I suppose, because my father had his own pharmacy business and, while my mother did secretarial work for a number of years, she now sells hats from home - she has never stopped working! I had a very happy childhood, went to the local primary school, then on to secondary school and, after that, I went to Watford College where I acquired my secretarial qualifications. I worked in London until we got married then, for the next few years, I had to concentrate on raising our three children. Since they’ve grown up, I’ve returned to employment in the locality.”
“Milan, earlier on we talked briefly about the Jewish East End of London; well, both of my grandparents actually lived there and, knowing that you would have the chance to speak to my mother yourself, I thought I would leave it to her to tell you something about their lives there.”
“We consider ourselves to be a very typical London Jewish family: some of our friends perceive us as quite traditional, while others think we are the exact opposite - such a spectrum of opinions! For myself, I see us as somewhere in the middle. I am religious, I love the spiritual dimension of Judaism, and I have encouraged our children to feel the same. I sense that, spiritually, the children do feel themselves Jewish too. I go to Synagogue quite regularly and I think I would be more observant if Jeremy were more inclined that way. We both come from similar, middle-of-the-road Jewish backgrounds, what some people call pick and mix Judaism; I know this is not approved of, officially, but such an approach works for us.”
“For myself, I would have been happy to become more observant, and to try to live closer to the teachings of the Torah, and I’m sure that if I’d married someone with similar leanings, things would be different. But, as you can no doubt imagine, I can’t easily observe the Sabbath on my own, not in our family home, and we do all love football! The big games are mostly on Saturdays, so the conflict between these two things is not easy to reconcile. But deep in my heart, I think I was possibly hoping that my children would choose to be more observant and we certainly have no hesitation in saying that we should prefer them to marry Jewish partners, though in that respect, I’m sure we’re not atypical. At the same time, I am genuinely convinced that we must allow our children to decide for themselves; they must be free to forge their own way in life. All we can do as parents is to try to show them what we believe to be right. When they were younger, our children did attend Hebrew classes and went to the local Synagogue regularly, but these days, they only usually attend Synagogue on holy days though, like me, they love the Jewish traditions and all the festivals are significant dates in our family calendar. Every Friday night, we aim to get together, light the candles, drink wine and eat challah at the beginning of our Sabbath meal. Even Nick, who no longer lives at home, enjoys coming back to us on a Friday night; indeed, only a few days ago, we all celebrated the Jewish New Year together in this family home.”
I asked Jeanine if she had ever been tempted to rebel, perhaps even a little, against her parents or perhaps against the traditions that had such a significant influence on her daily life; she replied: “To be honest, unlike so many children today, I didn’t really feel the need to rebel against my parents. For example, I never had any intention of marrying out of the religion - in my heart, I always knew I wanted to marry a Jewish boy and to bring up my children within our religion. There was also a not insignificant, practical impediment to meeting young men who were not Jewish: social events for them were mostly on Fridays and Saturdays and in my parents’ house, the Sabbath was observed without exception. Thus, Sunday was our principal day for socialising, for meeting men and dating.”
I asked Jeanine if she had experienced antisemitism at school or in the workplace. “Well, I was aware, of course, that our family was Jewish and in that respect we differed from other people. I used to receive the odd comment at school, but nothing much, really. Amusingly, I was aware that some of the children were a bit jealous of me, being able to take days off school for Jewish festivals; I was seen as lucky. When my parents moved to this area, a new synagogue was being constructed; this attracted many new families to move into the locality and, over time, it has become predominately Jewish. I feel I am surrounded by people who are very much like us, well integrated into modern London but living in reassuring proximity to one another. Consequently, many of our friends are Jewish too. I suspect that if we were to live in provincial England, we would probably feel more like outsiders, whereas London is such a vast melting-pot of different peoples. For some time, I worked for a major Japanese company, here in London, and I never experienced any discrimination there in any way.”
With a note of evident concern in her voice, Jeanine continued: “I wish I could say that this was still the case for our two younger children, both of whom are now at English universities. Jewish parents often chose to send their kids to universities where there is already a good representation of Jewish students because, regrettably, some university campuses have now become almost no-go areas for Jews. If Jewish students attempt to hold social gatherings, or to take part in discussions about Israel and Middle Eastern political issues, say at an undergraduate Jewish Society, their meetings are often stormed by anti-zionists and they have to resort to having heavy security around them. Universities, like the rest of the country, have become more polarised in recent years, less tolerant of other people’s perspectives and views. In the long term, that clearly cannot be a good thing.”
At this point, Jeanine’s parents arrived and so it was time to take the family photograph. Once that was done, I had the opportunity to turn to Jeanine’s mother, Barbara, and to invite her to tell me a little about her life.
I suggested to Barbara that perhaps she could be described as a true East Ender, to which she replied: “Well, almost. My mother was heavily pregnant with me when German bombs started raining down on East London and the docks - it must have been Hell on Earth. The family was evacuated, temporarily, to the relative safety of the north-west of England, so when the time came, I was actually born in Warrington, on the Lancashire/Cheshire border. However, we were there for only six weeks before we returned to London, but this time to Neasden, in the north-west of the capital. My father and his brothers had a pickle manufacturing plant, Marela Pickles. They had their own transport, horses and carts in those days, and they supplied the local community as well as some of the big resellers, including the famous Lyons Corner House. Their mother had a corset shop in the Commercial Road and they used the basement there to start up their production plant. I remember being told that the whole family would be regularly marshalled into sticking labels on to the jars of pickles! Later on, the firm expanded and moved to larger premises in Brick Lane. My father left Marela to set up in the production of malt vinegar, while two of his brothers carried on with Marela until they sold it to an American company.”
In the 1890’s, Barbara’s grandparents had come to the UK from Poland and from Latvia and Yiddish was the language they spoke in the home. They were fortunate in managing to migrate to the UK before the passing of the 1905 Aliens Act, as this legislation was designed to put an end to virtually all immigration.
Records indicate that, by 1890, Jews formed almost 95% of the Wentworth Street district of Spitalfields, in East London. It was a tight-knit community, enabling those newly-arrived to London to maintain their own culture in what, for them, was an alien and not always very welcoming new world. Most newcomers hardly spoke any English and thus Yiddish became the language principally spoken in homes and on the street, with most shop signs and newspapers being in Yiddish too. Synagogues were built and Jewish social life revolved around the chevras - places for worship and welfare. Not surprisingly, Jewish bakeries sprang up to supply the speciality breads and bagels required for various ritual meals, and salted herrings and pickled cucumbers were sold at every corner. In Wentworth Street alone, there were fifteen kosher butchers.
Israel Zangwill, in his novel, Children of the Ghetto, published in 1892, described with remarkable accuracy the lives of new Jewish immigrants, living in the cramped, densely-packed communities of an often hostile East End - these were people who were largely voiceless, people who, throughout European history, had been forced to live in isolation from their fellow men and who bore the weight of their history on their backs. One of the most important facets of Zangwill’s novel was his successful demonstration of how the ghetto comprised an astonishing range of people: amongst the denizens of the Jewish Quarter were those who were poor, almost to the point of destitution; those who had prospered and grown rich; those who were but simple souls, expecting no more and no less than the little that life brought them; and there were those highly educated and cultured individuals who promoted groundbreaking ideas and harboured the greatest of aspirations.
As Zangwill suggests, the cultural life of the Jewish East End covered a very broad spectrum indeed, ranging from the sequestered life of the highly disciplined, ultra-orthodox Jews, with their steadfast adherence to traditional practices, right through to the aficionados of European high culture and the fine arts. There were also those who operated and patronised establishments that catered for the somewhat less refined, earthly pleasures. The novel had to be reprinted several times and its revelations shocked some strait-laced Victorians but, above all, it enlightened a largely ignorant and unwelcoming indigenous population, revealing that the new Jewish immigrants, who seemed superficially so very strange, yet were in reality just human beings not so dissimilar from the host community. Of course, like many of the immigrants who have settled here, once they had mastered the language, the industrious Jews became established and prosperous. Gradually, the successful migrated to other, more affluent, parts of London where they would often reside in clusters around newly-erected synagogues, thus creating new, mini-enclaves of Jewish life.
Skipping across history from Edwardian London to the present day, we can note that around half of the Jews now living in the capital describe themselves as ‘Orthodox’ (ie Jews who are members of the United Synagogue, the Federation of Synagogues, and the Independent Orthodox Synagogue) but the word ‘Orthodox’ itself has to be understood in quite broad terms. That is because many Orthodox Jews, like the Ottman family, choose to apply Jewish laws and customs in a fairly flexible way; this they do largely in order to be able to reconcile their beliefs and traditions with the multifarious demands of life and work in contemporary Britain. Around 20% are soi-disant ‘Reformed’ Jews, adhering to the tenets of the Reform Judaism movement, founded in nineteenth-century Germany, and often attending the Westminster Synagogue and Cheim’ V’Tikvah and Hastings and District Jewish Societies.
‘Liberal’ Jews are the smallest component of London’s Jewish community and represented just over 8% of the capital’s Jews - many are associated with the Belsize Square Synagogue.
And then, of course, there are the numerous Jews who have over time become completely secular; ethnically, they may still describe themselves as Jewish but without religion, they no longer feature in national statistics.
Amongst the 50% of Orthodox Jews, the Ultra-Orthodox Haredim are currently believed to make up around 14% of the population but there is no doubt that, because of their mode of dress and their concentration in certain London districts, they are easily the most conspicuous. Haredi Jews are not only a close-knit community but they are also perhaps the most insular, most private of any of London’s numerous communities, save perhaps for the mega-rich. Over 20,000 Haredim live in one square mile of suburban Stamford Hill and theirs is a deeply conservative community. They see themselves as fighting against modernisation, as the defenders of the true, age-old Jewish faith and tradition, conveyed to London from nineteenth-century eastern Europe. When, mostly in Germany, liberal thinkers began to question inherited orthodoxies, creating the Jewish Reform Movement and promoting the assimilation with mainstream society that brought with it the advent of secularism, the schism in Judaism became irreconcilable. Whereas all those Jews who subscribed to, and took part in, the European Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) felt that Judaism must change in order to accommodate changes in broader society in Western Europe, the ultra-Orthodox Haredim insisted instead on the strictest adherence to the inherited body of Jewish law and customs (the Halakha).
It is estimated that there are now over 1.4 million Haredim worldwide, for whom Yiddish remains the primary spoken language. Religious learning, including the study and observance of the Talmud, is the central objective of life and activity, although observance of the Commandment to ‘be faithful and multiply’ means that many have large families of sometimes nine or more children. Having said this, it is interesting to note that, overall, the Jewish population of Britain is in steady decline. In the period from 1990 to 2006, numbers fell from 340,000 to 270,000 and this trend continues, suggesting that by 2050, Ultra-Orthodox Jews will have become the majority amongst British Jewry.
In a Haredi home, neither radio nor television is permitted because these media are seen as potential vehicles for the corruption of minds. Separation between men and women in public places is absolute; arranged marriage at the age of 18 or 20 is the rule; and single-sex schools, many of which exclude large parts of the secular and scientific curriculum, are also the norm. Regrettably, from a Gentile perspective, this means that young Haredim are very poorly equipped for employment in the world at large, with most just undertaking necessary work within the community and many continuing to concentrate on their Talmudic studies.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are clearly a significant and important part of London’s diverse population but their relative isolation and ‘otherness’ inevitably creates tensions and potential conflicts with the wider world that surrounds them - they are part of this world but they can be perceived as refusing any active part in it. I therefore took the opportunity to ask Jeremy what was his perspective on such an interesting conundrum. After due consideration, he responded: “Milan, you could describe my views about them as equivocal, I find them difficult to understand. They undoubtedly perform an important function, but were you to ask me if I see them as kindred spirits, I would have to say ‘no, I don’t’. Sometimes, they don’t even speak English, only Yiddish, and in their curious medieval costumes, they look almost as if they have stepped out of a Shakespeare play. Yes, of course, I acknowledge that they are people just the same as me - my own grandmother probably came from such a community, from a shtetl in Eastern Europe - but somehow, planted into 21st century London, they seem incongruous, anachronistic. Do they perform an important function? I believe they do, and they should have an absolute right to live however they like, within reason and within the law of the land. Should they be allowed to walk on the streets without being insulted or ridiculed? Of course they should.”
At this point, Jeremy paused for a moment: “The London Haredim might be my people, my fellow Jews, but to be quite frank, I have never met or spoken to a single one of them. I am very interested to hear that you have and you’re not even Jewish.” At this, Jeremy laughs, and indeed he was quite right: for my 100 Faces of London project, exhibited just before the 2012 London Olympics, Rabbi Yisroel Weisz, then aged only 27, agreed to be photographed at my home studio and his image can still be seen online at: http://www.100facesoflondon.org/87-yisroel-weiz.html. Some years later, in August 2013, for my second project about Londoners, Outsiders in London: Are you one, too? I had the great privilege of photographing, again in my home studio, the well-known Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen, at the age of 77. He is a prominent and distinguished UK-based member of Neturei Karta, a faction of the Ultra-Orthodox community which, on the basis of their interpretation of the Torah, rejected secular Zionism and opposed the establishment of the State of Israel. His image and associated story (one of 41) attracted much interest and controversy during the project’s public exhibition in London, during 2015. It can still be seen and read online on at: http://www.outsidersinlondon.org/24-rabbi-cohen.html. Both my encounters with rabbis gave me first-hand insight into the complexities of Jewish people’s lives and faith, and taught me to understand that nothing is ever simple when one embarks upon a discussion about Judaism or, indeed, about Israel itself.
Towards the conclusion of the interviews, and as my visit to the Ottman’s drew to a close, I felt the need to mention ‘Brexit’ and our country’s impending departure from the European Union. The issue has unquestionably polarised the country, with the issue of immigration and the perceived negative effect of migrants upon the fabric of this country a matter rehearsed daily in all the media. Considering their own history of migration, I imagined that such controversy would resonate in every Jewish soul, but did it? I asked Jeremy first: “Milan, most people will not come out and say that they are antisemitic, but of course many still are. And when it comes to the rise of nationalism, well, any study of history will reveal alarming parallels, so it would be hard not to have concerns about increasingly vocal populist and anti-immigration movements here and in mainland Europe. But I must say that, while I don’t have any worries personally, at this very moment, I do accept that the lessons of history should teach us all to be cautious.” I asked Jeremy if he felt more protected here, in the UK, than he would if he were living on the continent: “Probably I do. For all its faults, this country has often offered a home to those fleeing from persecution, and I don’t believe that this is likely to change. Mind you, having said this, I guess ordinary, decent German people didn’t believe that the Holocaust and the mass extermination of a whole range of outsiders and political opponents could happen in their own country.”
Jeanine's mother, Barbara, added: “I am a Jewish Londoner and I have no hesitation in saying that I don’t feel any discrimination here. I love this country, but I don’t love it quite so much at the present time. I admit, I am a bit scared. I worry about the political situation here in Britain, and in Europe too; there is just so much hatred and anger about. I might be a Londoner, born and bred, but I do fear, somewhere deep inside, that the tide could turn. My aunt used to say, when I was a youngster, that what happened in Germany could happen here, or anywhere, and I just laughed. Well, I’m not laughing any more. If things don’t go well for people, it’s always the outsiders who get the blame and, once more, the Jews could easily be targeted; they always have been and I can see this beginning to happen again.”
London’s Jews are a relatively small segment of the population but their pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, media, politics, culture, education, medicine, public services, and the sciences is surely exceptional. Could I imagine this great city of ours without them? The question seems absurd and, without a shadow of doubt, the answer is assuredly, ‘No’. But, just as Barbara harks back to her childhood, it should be remembered that barely three generations ago, the Jewish people were characterised as Untermensch (inferior-people, the ‘masses from the East’) and a grotesque endeavour was launched to exterminate them, together with the Roma, the Slavs, the disabled, and the homosexuals - all the outsiders, those who were seen not to fit in, or to refuse to do so. Humanity must never for one moment forget what nationalism and xenophobia can bring and attacks on minorities must be seen as the inevitable excrescences of racism that they surely are. All peoples have the same right to seek a space to live on this planet and they should be seen as equals. And all of us, including the many who have once been oppressed in their turn, should do our utmost to ensure that history does not repeat itself - the oppressed must never become themselves the oppressors.
Text edited: 17th October 2018
Page modified: 17th March 2019