University life sent Rebecca on her journey of discovery

PICTURE: David Levinson


IT’S quite apt that Rebecca Abrams has written The Jewish Journey as she has been on a personal Jewish journey.

Historian Rebecca has tracked down her own family history.

Three of her great grandfathers came from eastern Europe. Abraham Abramovitz went at the age of 18 from Friedrichstadt, Latvia, to London.

Another, Joshua Edelman, had to leave the Polish-Russian border in a hurry because he was a social revolutionary.

He and his wife settled in Cardiff, where he was a photographer and beadle for a synagogue.

His son, Rebecca’s grandfather, Maurice Edelman was Labour MP for Coventry and a novelist, living in Hughenden Manor, Disraeli’s house outside High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Maurice had always been fascinated by Disraeli and so is Rebecca, who has followed in his literary footsteps.

Another great -grandfather, Harry Jager, came from Romania as a poor carpenter, but became the millionaire owner of Park Royal Coachworks. Harry used to host Shabbat meals at the Savoy Hotel.

His son, Solomon, donated windows to Marble Arch Synagogue.

Although Rebecca’s ancestors were practising Jews, her parents were both committed atheists. Rebecca grew up in Cambridge where both her parents were historians and academics; her mother Sonia lecturing in social work and policy and her late father Philip in political philosopher.

Rebecca said: “I was raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity, but with no historical or religious context. We used to go to my London grandparents for Passover.”

Her parents split up when she was five and Rebecca was raised in Durham, Huddersfield and Bristol. She returned to Cambridge to read English at Newnham College.

It was there that she first became aware of the gaps in her Jewish knowledge.

She said: “It has been an on-going journey, a voyage of discovery since I was about 20. It began at university, where I met other Jewish students for the first time.

“They knew a lot more about Judaism than I did. They also recognised that I was Jewish in a way that I didn’t quite recognise.

“I had had such a non-Jewish upbringing. I didn’t realise that my name was very Jewish. My parents were very secular and assimilated, but they had given me an incredibly Jewish name. It didn’t quite add up.

“There was confusion about how openly-Jewish one should be. Privately my family was really proud of being Jewish, but publicly we were very typically Anglo-Jewish. We didn’t display our Jewishness.”

She added: “At university I realised I needed to know and learn more. I needed to make an important decision about my Jewish identity.

“Gradually over the years I began to educate myself, to learn a little Hebrew and Jewish history.”

She married a philo-semitic non-Jew and decided when she had her own children — Jessica, now 22, and studying in Cambridge, and Solomon, now 20, and studying at University College, London — that she wanted to do things differently from her parents and give her children a stronger sense of Jewish identity.

Settling in Oxford, Rebecca became involved in the Oxford Jewish Congregation.

Meanwhile she developed her writing career, as a journalist for The Guardian, Daily Mail and The Telegraph and publishing self-help books about bereavement and motherhood, as well as a historical novel.

Her latest book, The Jewish Journey: 4000 years in 22 objects from the Ashmolean Museum, came from her involvement with the Oxford Jewish Congregation.

She said: “I joined the congregation’s committee, Oxford Jewish Heritage. Both my parents were historians. I have written historical fiction and am really interested in history, my own and that of other people.”

The Heritage Committee realised that Jewish history wasn’t very clearly represented at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, one of the oldest museums in the world.

A number of objects of Jewish significance were dotted haphazardly around the museum with no narrative thread running between them.

Rebecca said: “We became aware that Jewish history was very invisible in the museum.

“We gathered information about what Jewish objects there were and did research. It became clear that there were a lot of objects which were Jewish in origin or had Jewish connections and that there were stories behind them.

“I realised that there was more to these objects than just describing them with little captions.

“We proposed a book to the Ashmolean. With their backing the book came into existence, a collaborative effort between the Ashmolean and Oxford Jewish Heritage.”

Rebecca was entrusted with the mammoth task of doing all the research and telling Jewish history as it relates to the museum’s objects.

She said: “There was so much more I could have written about all of the objects and so many more objects I could have written about.

“The book is primarily about Jews as they moved through the world. I found most fascinating the immense diversity of Jewish life in different times and places.

“The objects really bring home how differently people lived at different times and places. It was an interesting combination of continuity and diversity.

“It was very interesting and stimulating. I learned a great deal.”

The first object mentioned in the book is the Sumerian King List from about 800 BCE Mesopotamia.

Rebecca said: “I started the journey there because of Abraham.

“The List mentions Ur, where he lived. It also tells the flood story which became a very early version of the Noah’s Ark story. It is not strictly speaking a Jewish object, but it is the start of my Jewish journey.”

The objects mentioned take in the story of the Assyrian siege of Judah, the Babylonian exile, the Roman conquest of Judaea and medieval Jews living in Italy, Egypt and eastern Europe up to Nazi-era memorabilia.

She said: “The book covers a lot of the important parts of the Jewish journey. It does not have everything, because I could only work with the objects in the museum.”

Rebecca is staying with history for her next two books. She is currently writing a novel set around early Zionism and is co-editing a book for the Bodleian Library, Oxford, about their Judaica.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph