Invisible in Oxford: Medieval Jewish History in Modern England

By van, Elisa Narin | Shofar, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Invisible in Oxford: Medieval Jewish History in Modern England


van, Elisa Narin, Shofar


Medieval Anglo-Jewish history has only very recently begun to be included in scholarly histories of England and is still relatively absent unless the history is specifically concerned with the Jews of England. Unfortunately, the relative invisibility of medieval Jewish history in British historical scholarship is mirrored in the semi-scholarly "public face" of British history as it is represented in historical and heritage materials, guidebooks, memorials, and other informational sources for travelers and history in England. While it is often the nature of heritage groups to sanitize and homogenize the past, the degree to which this is done with regard to the medieval Anglo-Jewish past requires response and action, particularly in the context of an alarming world-wide rise in antisemitism. If knowledge is an essential context for understanding and tolerance, more visible and accurate accounts of medieval Jewish history are a necessary first step towards effecting social change.

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Milan Kundera

In an essay published in 1992, Colin Richmond, sirring in the famed Botanical Gardens of Oxford, details the many ways in which Jews and Jewish history are almost entirely absent from the histories of England.1 Unless the scholarship is explicitly concerned with "the Jews of London," "the Jews of Medieval England," or a similar title that indicates the narrow and focused range of study, the word Jew is rarely found in scholarly indexes or texts. Richmond's concern with the absence of Jewish history in English history was provoked by his realization that he knew that the lovely gardens in which he sat had once been the medieval Jewish cemetery, not from the book Medieval Oxford written by a renowned historian of Oxford, but from Cecil Roth's The Jews of Medieval Oxford.1 And although the academic landscape has improved in die decade since Richmond's essay appeared, a significant invisibility continues to mark medieval Jewish history in the larger context of English history. Not surprisingly, this relative invisibility of Jewish history in British historical scholarship is mirrored in the non-scholarly "public face" of British history as it is represented in historical and heritage sites and materials, guidebooks and other informational sources for travelers and tourists, and in the very memorials themselves that both mark and elide, by codification or a supreme lack of contextualization, the reality of Jewish heritage and history in England. Manufactured for the consumption and edification of foreign tourists and British residents alike, the "public face" of Anglo-Jewish history is a complicated and vexed social production that, in its own fashion, tells us "a great deal about Englishness" and, perhaps, Jewishness-precisely what Richmond claims for the absence of Jewish history in English historical scholarship.3

A decade after Richmond sat in Oxford's Botanical Gardens, I stood at the entrance to Oxfords Botanical Gardens, unaware of Richmond's essay but similarly puzzled by the placement and wording of the plaque that tersely marks the historicity of the Gardens. Resident in Oxford, or more specifically at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies some miles away in Yarnton, I learned that the Botanical Gardens had been the Jewish cemetery. not from any of the many guidebooks I had consulted, nor from the many over-views of historical Oxford I had thumbed through, but from the leader of the Centre. Indeed, in a later survey of the available guidebooks, and there are dozens of them, I found only one that mentioned, almost parenthetically, that the Gardens were on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery. At the time, though, I was standing in puzzlement because I couldn't find the plaque that I had been told commemorates that historical fact. (Since that time, I've had seven students study abroad in Oxford, and out of the seven, only one was able to find, with some guidance from me, the elusive plaque. …

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