Victorian London - Religion - perceived character of Jews

see also Henry Mayhew, Letter XIV - click here

see also George Sala in Twice Round the Clock - click here

see also Thomson and Smith on Jews and fish

see also Wentworth Street - click here

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets (1)

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets (2)

    The foregoing sketch is typical of the lives of the majority of Polish and Russian Jews from their first appearance in the port of London. Usually they bring with them no ready-made skill of a marketable character. They are set down in an already over­stocked and demoralized labour market; they are surrounded by the drunkenness, immorality, and gambling of the East End streets; they are, in fact, placed in the midst of the very refuse of our civilization, and yet (to quote from a former chapter), whether they become bootmakers, tailors, cabinet-makers, glaziers, or dealers, the Jewish inhabitants of East London rise in the social scale; “as a mass they shift upwards, leaving to the new­comers from foreign lands and to the small section of habitual gamblers the worst-paid work, the most dilapidated workshops, and the dirtiest lodgings.” But this is not all. Originally engaged in the most unskilled branch of the lowest section of each trade, Jewish mechanics (whether we regard them individually or as a class) slowly but surely invade the higher provinces of produc­tion, bringing in their train a system of employment and a method of dealing with masters, men, and fellow-workers which arouses the antagonism of English workmen. The East End Jewish problem therefore resolves itself into two central ques­tions :—( 1) What are the reasons of the Jews’ success? (2) Why is that success resented by that part of the Christian community with whom the Jew comes in daily contact? I venture to end this chapter with a few suggestions touching this double- faced enigma of Jewish life.
    First we must realize (in comparing the Polish Jew with the English labourer) that the poorest Jew has inherited through the medium of his religion a trained intellect. For within the Judaic Theocracy there are no sharp lines dividing the people into distinct classes with definite economic characteristics such as exist in most Christian nations: viz, a leisure class of landowners, a capitalist class of brain-workers, and a mass of labouring people who up to late years have been considered a lower order, fit only for manual work.
    The children of Israel are a nation of priests. Each male child, rich or poor, is a student of the literature of his race. In his earliest childhood he is taught by picturesque rites and cere­monies the history, the laws, and the poetry of his people; in boyhood he masters long passages in an ancient tongue; and in the more pious and rigid communities of Russian Poland the full- grown man spends his leisure in striving to interpret the subtle reasoning and strange fantasies of that great classic of the He­brews, the Talmud. I do not wish to imply that the bigotted Jew is a “cultured” being, if we mean by culture a wide experience of the thoughts and feelings of other times and other races. Far from it. The intellectual vision and the emotional sympathies of the great majority of Polish Jews are narrowed down to the past history and present prospects of their own race. But the mechanical faculties of the intellect—memory, the power of sustained rea­soning, and the capacity for elaborate calculation—have been persistently cultivated (in orthodox communities) among all classes, and there has resulted a striking equality, and a high though narrow level of intellectual training.
    This oneness of type and uniformity of chances, originating in the influence of a unique religion, have been strengthened and maintained by the industrial and political disabilities under which the Jews have laboured through the greater part of the Christian era, and which still exist in Russian Poland. The brutal persecu­tion of the Middle Ages weeded out the inapt and incompetent. Injustice and social isolation, pressing on poor and rich alike, sharpened and narrowed the intellect of Israel, regarded as a whole, to an instrument for grasping by mental agility the good things withheld from them by the brute force of the Christian peoples.
    In the Jewish inhabitants of East London we see therefore a race of brain-workers competing with a class of manual labourers. The Polish Jew regards manual work* as the first rung of the social ladder, to be superseded or supplanted on the first opportunity by the estimates of the profit-maker, the transactions of the dealer, or the calculations of the money-lender; and he is only tempted from a life of continual acquisition by that vice of the intellect, gambling.
Besides the possession of a trained intellect, admirably adapted to commerce and finance, there is another, and I am inclined to think a more important factor in the Jew’s success. From birth upwards, the pious Israelite (male and female) is subjected to a moral and physical regimen, which, while it favours the full development of the bodily organs, protects them from abuse and disease, and stimulates the growth of physical self-control and mental endurance.** For the rites and regulations of the Mosaic law and the more detailed instructions of tradition are in no way similar to the ascetic exercises of the Christian or Buddhist saint seeking spiritual exaltation through the mortification or annihila­tion of physical instinct. On the contrary, the religious ordinances and sanitary laws of the Jewish religion accentuate the physical aspect of life; they are (as M. Rénan has observed) not a preparation for another world, but a course of training adapted to prolong the life of the individual and to multiply the number of his descendants.
Moreover, the moral precepts of Judaism are centered in the perfection of family life, in obedience towards parents, in self- devotion for children, in the chastity of the girl, in the support and protection of the wife. The poorest Jew cherishes as sacred the maternity of the woman, and seldom degrades her to the position of a worker upon whose exertions he depends for subsistence. Thus Jewish morality, instead of diverting feeling from the service of the body, combines with physical training to develop exclusively that side of man’s emotional nature which is in­extricably interwoven with the healthful and pleasurable exercise of physical instinct. Hence in the rigidly conforming Jew we have a being at once moral and sensual; a creature endowed with the power of physical endurance, but gifted with a highly-trained and well-regulated appetite for sensuous enjoyment. And with the emotions directed into the well-regulated channels of domestic feeling, the mind remains passionless. Anger, pride, and self- consciousness, with their counterparts of indignation, personal dignity, and sensitiveness, play a small part in the character of the Polish Jew. He suffers oppression and bears ridicule with imperturbable good humour; in the face of insult and abuse he remains silent. For why resent when your object is to over­come? Why bluster and fight when you may manipulate or control in secret?
    The result is twofold. As an industrial competitor the Polish Jew is fettered by no definite standard of life; it rises and falls with his opportunities; he is not depressed by penury, and he is not demoralized by gain. As a citizen of our many-sided metropo­lis he is unmoved by those gusts of passion which lead to drunk­enness and crime; whilst on the other hand he pursues the main purposes of personal existence, undistracted by the humours, illusions, and aspirations arising from the unsatisfied emotions of our more complicated and less disciplined natures. Is it surpris­ing, therefore, that in this nineteenth century, with its ideal of physical health, intellectual acquisition, and material prosperity, the chosen people, with three thousand years of training, should in some instances realize the promise made by Moses to their forefathers: “Thou shalt drive out nations mightier than thyself, and thou shalt take their land as an inheritance”?
Such, I imagine, are the chief causes of the Jew’s success. We need not seek far for the origin of the antagonistic feelings with which the Gentile inhabitants of East London regard Jewish labour and Jewish trade. For the reader will have already per­ceived that the immigrant Jew, though possessed of many first- class virtues, is deficient in that highest and latest development of human sentiment—social morality.
I do not wish to imply by this that East End Jews resist the laws and defy the conventions of social and commercial life. On the contrary, no one will deny that the children of Israel are the most law-abiding inhabitants of East London. They keep the peace, they pay their debts, and they abide by their contracts; practices in which they are undoubtedly superior to the English and Irish casual labourers among whom they dwell. For the Jew is quick to perceive that “law and order” and the “sanctity of contract” are the sine qua non of a full and free competition in the open market. And it is by competition, and by competition alone, that the Jew seeks success. But in the case of the foreign Jews, it is a competition unrestricted by the personal dignity of a definite standard of life, and unchecked by the social feelings of class loyalty and trade integrity. The small manufacturer injures the trade through which he rises to the rank of a capitalist by bad and dishonest production. The petty dealer or small money­lender, imbued with the economic precept of buying in the cheap­est and selling in the dearest market, suits his wares and his terms to the weakness, the ignorance, and the vice of his cus­tomers; the mechanic, indifferent to the interests of the class to which he temporarily belongs, and intent only on becoming a small master, acknowledges no limit to the process of under­bidding fellow-workers, except the exhaustion of his own strength. In short, the foreign Jew totally ignores all social obligations other than keeping the law of the land, the maintenance of his own family, and the charitable relief of co-religionists.
    Thus the immigrant Jew, fresh from the sorrowful experiences typical of the history of his race, seems to justify by his existence those strange assumptions which figured for man in the political economy of Ricardo—an Always Enlightened Selfishness, seeking employment or profit with an absolute mobility of body and mind, without pride, without preference, without interests outside the struggle for the existence and welfare of the individual and the family. We see these assumptions verified in the Jewish inhabi­tants of Whitechapel; and in the Jewish East End trades we may watch the prophetic deduction of the Hebrew economist actually fulfilled—in a perpetually recurring bare subsistence wage for the great majority of manual workers.

[* It is a mistake to suppose that the Jew is physically unfit for manual work. On the contrary, he is better fitted than the Anglo-Saxon for those trades which require quickness of perception rather than artistic skill, and he will compete successfully with the Englishman in forms of manual labour needing physical endurance, and not actual strength of muscle. Hence the Jew’s success in the machine-made coat and boot and shoe trades.]
From a psychological as well as from an ethical point of view, a detailed study of the sanitary observances of the Jewish religion (more especially those relative to sexual functions) would be extremely interesting. The musical talent which distinguishes the Hebrew race has been ascribed by psychologists to the effect of these observances on successive generations.]

Beatrice Potter in Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903