LATEST UPDATE: Job Vacancy: Operations Assistant

Wearing My Hat (or not) as Editor of Transactions

Published March 12, 2018 by Professor Michael Berkowitz

University College London, Jewish History Month, Jewish Historical Society Of England

Professor Michael Berkowitz reflects on the 125th anniversary of the Jewish Historical Society of England and its launch of Jewish History Month in March 2018.


Walking westward after a wonderful Punjabi grilled lunch, followed by partaking in a modest but superb exhibition of colour photography by David Granick of London's East End at the Tower Hamlets Library and Archive, a colleague and I happened upon two large plaques we'd never noticed before on a building in the Mile End Road.


I was immediately struck by the coincidence that the journal I edit, Transactions, was about to publish an article by Julia Lieberman about the very hospital memorialized on the imposing tablets, Beth Holim. Too bad, I thought, we didn't include this image in the journal. It would have made a great cover.


It also seemed remarkable that the accompanying inscription featured Edward Lumbrozo Mocatta, whose family were benefactors of the Jewish Studies library and special collections at University College London (UCL), where I have taught since 1997. Mocatta came to mind recently because his family partnered with Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, who was critical in the founding of both UCL and UCH (University College Hospital). Recently I had participated in a much-belated wake for utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who helped inspire the founding of UCL, whose "auto-icon" (usually) graces the South Cloisters of UCL's main building. The auto-icon was requested for a loan to the Met Breuer Museum in New York (beginning spring 2018), and Jeremy was to be shipped off, in a custom-built throne-container, in the next few days. So the museum and public engagement wizards at UCL decided to seize the occasion for a proper send-off.

In the spirit of celebration, memorialisation, and providing an excuse for having a good time, in 2018 the Jewish Historical Society of England (JHSE) celebrates its 125th anniversary, and to the extent that it can exercise such powers, the Society declares March 2018 as "Jewish History Month". The JHSE is believed by many to be the oldest continuous historical-interest organization in the world.  (Proof is another matter.) Its journal, Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, commonly referred to as Transactions (mentioned above), began in 1893-94, and is now published under the aegis of UCL Press. The volume which appears imminently, number 49, will soon be available online. Its predecessor (volume 48) can be accessed through both the Ingenta and ScienceOpen platforms. While the publication of Transactions has been somewhat irregular (a few world wars and various crises happened to intervene), it is notable for featuring outstanding scholarship in Jewish history, texts, and literary studies long before "Judaic (Jewish) Studies" came to connote an academic field.  

After World War II, and prior to the second decade of the current century, JHSE lectures in London (the main stuff to be "transacted") had been held at St. John's Wood synagogue. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, attendance dwindled, as the cohort of 'gentleman scholars' began to noticeably diminish. Now the institutional setting is UCL, which is something of a homecoming, and audiences are increasingly diverse and robust. Before the Second World War the JHSE had, in fact, been based at UCL, and even curated a small museum on UCL premises, as has been discussed in the scholarship of Kathrin Pieren. Upon the centenary of UCL (observed in 1927), Sir Philip Magnus, a noted educational reformer, overall do-gooder, and rabbi of West London Synagogue (something of a forerunner to Rabbi Julia Neuberger), remarked that there was an intimate relationship between UCL and the JHSE that transcended simple cooperation. Magnus was particularly touched that his late wife, Lady Katie Magnus, was made an honorary member of the JHSE due to her numerous publications in Jewish history. As an alumni of University College School and University College London, with the JHSE ensconced in the latter, Philip Magnus was impressed by the mutual regard and collegiality he felt between the country's Jewish history society and its premier metropolitan university.

It is important to recall that UCL was the first university, anywhere, to offer Jewish Studies as a secular academic field — not simply as a building block or foil to Christian theology (as was the case for Oxbridge.) To this day, there is no dedicated professorship in modern Jewish history at either Oxford or Cambridge. Hyman Hurwitz of UCL was the first Jewish professor, anywhere, teaching and writing on Hebrew and Jewish subjects outside the telos of Christianity. The cliché that UCL — to friends and foes alike — was "the godless college in Gower Street" belies a deeper, more complex, and coarser history than often is admitted. This is particularly apropos because I am advising Felicity Griffths, who is completing a PhD on the social, religious, and political foundations of the University of London. From her fine work I have learned that the forebears of Kings College London launched their university not simply to counter the establishment of UCL — but to undermine it. Likewise Oxford, Cambridge, and the conservative powers allied with the state church tried to prevent the University of London, later UCL, from coming into being. The West End play, Photograph 51, about scientist Rosalind Franklin, who co-discovered the double-helix of DNA but was denied a share of Watson and Crick's Nobel Prize, contains a line that elicits a laugh while making others squirm. In 1953, upon Franklin's introduction to Don Caspar, a new colleague at KCL, Caspar remarks that like Franklin, he is Jewish. Rosalind Franklin caustically responds: "That will make two of us at King's." Such a comment would have been unimaginable at UCL. In light of such a framework, the transplantation of Transactions to the UCL Press is especially fitting.

The JHSE is not only old and venerable. It is rather oddly constituted. Some might say eccentric. It's a hybrid, in that its membership includes full-time academics, part-time scholars and teachers, and those whose livelihoods lie totally outside of education. The JHSE comprises students and retirees, doctors, lawyers, archivists, accountants, journalists, musicians, artists, Jews and non-Jews. A large share of members are historians, at various levels, whose work engages Jews in the English-speaking world. Starting with volume 44, my first as editor, a standardised peer-review process was introduced along with an editorial board. Since volume 47, Transactions is an imprint of UCL Press, which provides open-access to scholars world-wide. We maintain the central purposes of Transactions — publishing papers presented to meetings of the Society and providing a venue for research of concern to the Society generally. So if you have produced a scholarly paper concerning English-speaking Jewry, or Jews in English-speaking lands, please consider submitting to Transactions. We are, as mentioned, peer-reviewed and open-access — an important combination for the dreaded REF as well for its own sake. But perhaps even more compelling: engaging with the JHSE and Transactions is a means of joining a community of historians, outside of the classroom and daytime lecture hall, which in the best of worlds leads to a richer, more informed discussion of historical issues and further dialogue. We hope to entertain the fruits of your intellectual labours and to greet you personally at our meetings.

Michael Berkowitz is Professor of Modern Jewish History in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. He also serves as editor of Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England.

Details of Jewish History Month can be found here. Contact the Jewish Historical Society of England here or 01553 849849. 


Photo credits: Frank Dabba Smith



Back to Blog