How many Jews are there in England and Wales? With the publication of the 2011 census figures, it is now possible to give a very precise answer to that question: 263,346.[1] But of course, the figure is actually a little misleading. What the 2011 census tells us is the number of people willing to disclose their Jewish identity on the census form. So, to be more accurate, we can say that in 2011 263,346 people in England and Wales identified themselves as Jewish – compared with 259,927 in the 2001 census: an increase of just under 3 ½ thousand. The figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland have not yet been released.

Prior to 2001, which was the first time that the category ‘Jewish’ was included in the census, the figures for the Jewish population In Britain tended to be derived from records concerning synagogue affiliation – which meant that only Jews who belonged to synagogues got counted. So, the 2011 census figure is undoubtedly more accurate. But what it does not reveal is what being Jewish means to those 263,346 individuals.

Just 0.5% of the national population, we are a tiny minority – and we are far from being homogenous. On the contrary – we encompass: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, religious, ultra-religious, Chassidic, observant, non-observant, Orthodox, traditional, Masorti, Liberal, Progressive, Reform, humanist, secular, cultural, socialist, Buddhist, New Age. And this is just a list of the main ways in which Jews might be categorised into identifiable groups. You know the quip: Two Jews, three opinions…

But quite apart from the myriad ways in which individual Jews understand what it is to be Jewish, there is the more interesting issue of what we do about our Jewishness in the context of and in relation to, the majority culture. Yes, Britain has become much more multicultural, but the fact remains that despite a drop from 71.8% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011, the majority of people in England and Wales identify themselves as ‘Christian’.[2] And then there is the evidence all around us, right now, as Christmas Eve approaches: the TV ads selling Christmas to us in every guise and the roads and shops jam-packed with shoppers desperate to complete their shopping list in time… Even when I logged on to yahoo to sign into my email account, the first thing I saw the other day was a Sainsbury’s advert for Christmas fare, including king prawns… Can we be in any doubt that Christianity, albeit, a consumerist version, remains the dominant culture?

So, how do we relate to that dominant culture? Of course, there are probably as many answers to that question as there are Jews. When I was a child, my family celebrated, both, Chanukkah and Christmas. Our Christmas stockings – my mother used her nylons – were filled with modest gifts, including, chocolates, games and books. At Chanukkah, we received a new item of clothing – and chocolate Chanukkah gelt, of course. We didn’t have a Christmas tree or Christmas decorations – although my parents did display the cards we received from non-Jewish neighbours and friends. But we did have Christmas dinner – complete with Turkey, and the Rothschild’s recipe ‘Waddesdon Manor’ Christmas pudding, that my aunt Vicky made every year. And as my mum prepared the festive foods and we helped set the table, we often sang Christmas carols – humming through the references to the infant Jesus and ‘Christ the Lord.’ We understood that we were Jews participating, as Jews, in a Christian celebration.

I think the crucial element that framed our experience of Christmas was the eight-day Chanukkah lighting: gathering each evening, selecting the colours of the candles, saying the blessings and singing, Maoz Tzur. In a sense, because we related to Christmas as Jews, it was a one-day wonder – albeit very special. By contrast, there was an accumulating energy to Chanukkah proclaimed by the steady accumulation of flames.

When I think back to my childhood, I can see that my parents tried to integrate our Jewishness into the dominant culture – which also involved negotiating their very different Jewish experiences and approaches to being Jews. Born into a traditionally observant family, my mother had rejected orthodoxy, and yet enjoyed the home traditions of Judaism and had a huge repertoire of Yiddish and Hebrew melodies. Coming from a progressive background in Vienna, and from a family who became refugees from Nazism, my father was far less comfortable with the signs of Jewish life. With his heavy Viennese accent, eschewing Jewish particularism, he didn’t try so much to be English or British, as a citizen of the world. Between them they managed to offer their children a way to combine being Jewish and being part of the majority culture.

I’m sure that most of us will have Chanukkahand-Christmas stories to tell. In an important sense, how we respond to Chanukkah and Christmas is a litmus test of the way in which we negotiate being Jews in a society, where Christianity is the religion of the state. And so, it appears that at one end of the spectrum, there are ultraorthodox Jews, who choose the path of segregation, and at the other end of the spectrum, there are those with a Jewish past, but not a Jewish present, who choose the path of assimilation. But we need to be careful about making sweeping statements. For one thing, a spectrum, by definition, although it encompasses extremes at either end, also embraces a broad range in between – and is dynamic. Who is to say that a Jew, who lives a segregated life now, will always choose to do so? Who is to say that a Jew, who has assimilated, will not choose at some point to make positive Jewish choices?

In this week’s parashah, the Torah portion, Va-yiggash, which begins at Genesis chapter 44, verse 18, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. Here he is: Pharaoh’s right-hand man, to all appearances, looking like a proper Egyptian overlord. No wonder his brothers had failed to recognise him during their encounters. Joseph: the first successful diaspora Jew; apparently, so assimilated to Egyptian culture that he married Pharaoh’s daughter. But Joseph knew who he was – and so did Pharaoh. The Hebrew slave made good, Pharaoh elevated Joseph to high rank for a purpose: to oversee the storage and distribution of the produce of the seven years of plenty during the seven years of famine that followed.

So Joseph was reunited with the brothers who had sold him into slavery – and he was also reunited with his beloved father, Jacob. What the Torah tells us happened next is very instructive (Genesis 46:28 ff.). The land of Canaan was also blighted with famine – that’s why Joseph’s brothers went down to Egypt to buy grain from its storehouses, in the first place. So, the family settled in Egypt – in a particular place, the fertile region of Goshen. Why there? Because, unlike the Egyptians, they were shepherds; arriving in Egypt with their flocks and their herds, they needed a region that would offer pasture. In other words, the family maintained their way of life when they settled in Egypt.

But that’s not all. We read further in next week’s parashah, Va-y’chi, that when Jacob was preparing to die, he called Joseph, and asked him to put his hand under his thigh – that is, swear an oath – that he would not bury him in Egypt, but rather in the burial place of his ancestors (Genesis 47:28 ff.). By contrast, the Torah relates that when Joseph died, he was embalmed in the Egyptian manner following his death (50:26). Might we conclude that Joseph had become assimilated? Perhaps, it was because Jacob feared that Joseph had become an Egyptian, and to ensure that the line would not end withhim, that Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manesseh (48:8 ff.), as well as his own sons before his death (49:1 ff.). So, what did Joseph make of his identity? The Torah relates that before he died he took an oath before his children and grandchildren, saying, ‘God will surely remember you, and you shall carry out my bones from here’ (50:25). And that’s exactly what happened. The account of the Exodus of Jacob’s descendants from slavery generations later includes an interesting detail. We read in the parashah, B’shallach, at Exodus 13, verse 19, that ‘Moses took the bones of Joseph with him’ in fulfilment of Joseph’s oath.

So, we can conclude from the narrative of the migration of Jacob and his family to Egypt as it is recorded in the Torah that our ancestors did not lose their sense of identity and that they maintained their own way of life.

But the tale has a more troubling underside. Why did the guests, welcomed into Egypt and given a special place to live, become persecuted and oppressed slaves? Near the beginning of the first portion of the Book of Exodus, Sh’mot, at verses 8-10, we read: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. / And he said to his people: ‘Behold, the people of the Israelites are too mighty for us; / come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and it comes to pass that, when a war happens, they join themselves to our enemies and fight against us – and rise up from the land.’” Clearly, Joseph and his family had enjoyed a very fragile form of security, entirely dependent on the goodwill of the Pharaoh, whom Joseph had assisted so ably. Here we have it in a nutshell, a truth about the vulnerability of all outsiders, all refugees, and a truth about the vulnerability of their descendants, however settled they may become: a truth about minorities in a majority culture, which is echoed later in the Book of Esther, and which is played out still today.

But, of course, no truth is absolute. How minorities fare in majority cultures, depends on the nature of those societies, on the extent to which they respect human rights – and have the kinds of laws in place that protect minorities from discrimination and persecution. But even here in Britain, where the rights of minorities have been safeguarded through legislation like the Race Relations Act of 1976,[3] problems in the economy can give rise to a hardening of attitudes against those deemed to be outsiders, who may then be scapegoated for what’s going wrong. And who are the easiest targets: not just those who are the most recent arrivals – also, those who look different, live separately, and have another way of life.

Perhaps, one of the biggest dilemmas for many diaspora Jews – from Joseph onwards – is that we don’t necessarily look that different and can ‘pass’ – as ‘English’ or ‘French’ or ‘German’, and so on… – at least once we’ve become the second generation and lost any differentiating accent. And that is the attraction of assimilation… I don’t have to be different at all, if I choose not to be…

And so many Jews, it seems, choose not to be… When I went to Berlin with my rabbinic colleagues in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, we visited the Villa on the Wannsee, the lake outside Berlin, where the Nazi top brass met on January 20th 1942 to deliberate what they called ‘the final solution of the Jewish question’. The item on display that I found most shocking was actually the most prosaic: a typed list of the Jewish populations of Europe by country, totalling: 11 million. That was the Nazi target. And alongside, ‘Britain’: ‘500,000’. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the British military personnel who fought in World War II, the Nazis did not get here… And yet, the 2011 census tells us that the Jewish population today is not much more than half what it was in the 1940… – or to be more precise, that only 263,346 individuals in England and Wales identify themselves as Jewish…

On Christmas Eve, I will be travelling to Warwick University to participate in the annual Jewish education extravaganza known as Limmud, which means, ‘Learning’.[4] The conference actually begins tomorrow and will end next Thursday. Established over 30 years ago and now attracting more than 2000 participants, Limmud is a positive Jewish response to Christmas. When I arrive, I will give a talk about Liberal Judaism, and when December 25th arrives, it will be just another packed Limmud day.

I’m not saying that all Jews should abandon Christmas and attend Limmud. Apart from anything else, many Jews today live in mixed families and marking, both, Chanukkah and Christmas is an expression of the reality of their lives and a way of embracing diversity. And to be honest, as a professional Jew for whom Limmud is ‘a bus person’s holiday’, part of me would rather take the opportunity of the Bank Holiday to hibernate for a couple of days… Nevertheless, run by scores of young Jews from across the denominational spectrum, Limmud does teach us that at a time when Christmas is paramount, there is a vibrant minority alternative to the majority culture.

This time last week we had just begun a day-long celebration that culminated in a mass lighting of the eighth Chanukkah candle. Attended by around 70 people of all ages, not only was our Chanukkah Shabbaton a fabulous multi-activity community event, the day also radiated a spirit of exuberant rejoicing in our Jewish inheritance. So, whatever you do or don’t do over the next few days, as the dark season continues, may that joyous, confident spirit be a source of inspiration in the weeks and months to come. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Shabbat Va-yiggash, 22nd December 2012 – 9th Tevet 5773

[1] See: 2011 Census Results (England and Wales): Initial Insights about the UK Jewish Population (by David Graham, Jonathan Boyd and Daniel Vulkan, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 12 December 2012).


[2] Ibid.

[3] The Race Relations Act 1976 covers race discrimination in employment and training, education, housing, the provision of goods, facilities and services, and advertising. In 2001 it was amended by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 to include discrimination by all public bodies. The RRA applies to England, Wales and Scotland, but not to Northern Ireland, which now has its own legislation.