With July, summer begins in earnest – weather permitting, of course. This year, Tishah B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, falls towards the end of July. Commemorating the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the destruction of the last Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Tishah B’Av is a day of mourning, marked by fasting. The other principal observance is the reading of m’gillat Eicah, the scroll of Lamentations, the biblical book that describes the havoc wreaked on Jerusalem and its inhabitants by the Babylonians.
Those devastating events belong to the distant past, but annual commemoration ensures that they are remembered. Moreover, subsequent catastrophes deliberately scheduled for Tishah B’Av – most infamously, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 – have reinforced the sense that Jewish history is one long inventory of churban, destruction; what the 19th century German Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz, described as ‘a vale of tears’ (See the five-volume English edition of his History of the Jews, 1891-92). But this is a one-sided view. Jewish life has also thrived in many different times and places over the centuries – not least, in Babylonia, where the magnificent 63-volume Talmud was redacted in 500 CE, and in Muslim Spain, where Jewish poetry and learning flourished for many centuries before the reconquest by the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella that culminated in expulsion.
The story of the Jewish people is complex. If we take the journey of the Jewish community in Britain as an example and survey a few key events that happened in England in the month of July in the 13th and 19th centuries respectively, we can see how external socio-political realities impacted on Jewish life. The mediaeval period was grim, and after more than a century of persecution, on July 18, 1290, King Edward ‘the confessor’ signed the edict of expulsion of the Jewish community from England, which dictated that every last Jew had to leave by All Saints Day, November 1st. But that was not the end of the story. Oliver Cromwell instigated the revival Jewish life in England by inviting the Jews of Holland to settle in the 1650s. And then, following the 1789 French Revolution, the destruction of the feudal social structure that had forced Jews to live a segregated existence led to a complete transformation in the circumstances for Jewish life across Europe. So: July 23, 1858 marked the Parliamentary emancipation of the Jews of England. 12 years later, on July 14, 1870, the United Synagogue was established. July 2, 1871 saw the foundation of the Anglo Jewish Association. On July 9, 1885, Nathaniel Meyer, the first Lord Rothschild took his seat in the House of Lords. You could say that by the late 19th century the Jews of England had made it.
But a new century saw a change in Jewish fortunes. As hundreds of thousands of Jews fled pogroms in czarist Russia from the 1880s onwards, Britain’s toleration of its small Jewish community gave way to fear, resulting in the enactment of the first anti-immigration legislation in this country, the 1905 Aliens Act. And so, the complex, changing story of Jewish life in this country continued… And it continues: challenging us now to acknowledge – and remember – times of joy as well as times of sorrow.