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Book Notes: A History of the Jews' Free School, London, since 1732, Gerry Black

Peter Gordon

<plain_text><page sequence="1">A History of the Jews' Free School, London, since 1732, Gerry Black (Tymsder Publishing, 1998) ISBN 09531-110419. 263 + xiii pp. n.p. As one of the oldest Jewish schools in existence, the Jews' Free School, or JFS as it is still called, has a fascinating history. Beginning as a Talmud Torah in connection with the Great Synagogue in 1732, by the end of the nineteenth century it had grown to be, even by today's standards, an enormous enterprise, catering for well over 4,000 pupils. Within half a century of its foundation, it was reorganized on non-traditional lines as an orphan charity school for German Jews living in London, providing free education and clothing, with admission to other categories of children only if space permitted. From this point onwards, the story moves at a fast pace and is well told by the author of this book, Dr Gerry Black. One interesting feature of the history of Jewish education in England is the way in which national issues affected the school's fortunes. With the rise of urbanization and the herding of the masses into the expanding towns and cities, there were great concerns for the morals and discipline which could result from a discontented work force and there was a constant fear of crime. As an English social scientist wrote at the time, 'We must build either more schools or more prisons'. With their ingrained love of learning, the influential Jewish families had no hesitation in choosing the former. Dr Black describes the overwhelming influence of one family, the Rothschilds, in making the school a success. When a new site was needed, freehold property in Bell Lane was purchased. Nathan Rothschild, the founder of the English branch of the firm, contributed to the building fund in 1817. It was the begin? ning of a long association with the family: the Rothschilds supplied four consec? utive and active presidents, covering a period of 115 years, the last Rothschild retiring as a governor in 1983. Nathaniel, who became the first Lord Rothschild and was a friend of Edward VII, was a man of immense wealth and was president of the school for thirty-nine years. The school's colours and uniforms, blue and gold, are those of the Rothschild family. Other prominent families, such as the Goldsmids and the Montefiores, also gave generously, and there were contribu? tions from non-Jews. Perhaps the most surprising one was a donation of ?50 from Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who admired educated and enlightened Western Jews. One interesting feature of the expanded school from its opening in 1822 was that it admitted girls as well as boys, although in separate departments. There is a detailed history of the successive head teachers, all except two of whom, 333</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes G?tze Beyfus in 1825 and Dr Edward Con way in 1958, were previously teachers at the school. By far the most outstanding and colourful individual was Moses Angel, who was appointed in 1842 and remained in that post for the next fifty five years. His father, Emmanuel Moses, had been transported to Australia for allegedly being involved in the theft of a hundredweight of gold dust during its transit; Emmanuel's daughter was also sent to prison for being an accomplice. Wishing to detach himself from the stigma which the celebrated court case had brought on the family, the son changed his name from Angel Moses to Moses Angel. Angel joined the JFS as an English master in 1840, but within two years his administrative and teaching abilities were recognized and he was appointed head teacher. The school flourished over the next half century under his autocratic, but effective, leadership. He believed in the highest standards from both staff and pupils and managed to find time to teach several classes himself. Angel intro? duced a broad curriculum into the school and selected children not only on the basis of ability. Nevertheless, he opposed compulsory education and believed that three years' education was sufficient, leaving children ready to leave for work at the age of eleven. Many distinguished people visited the school to observe Angel's methods. One admirer was Matthew Arnold who, as the school's official inspector, praised Moses in his reports. Angel personally took charge of the pupil-teacher scheme, whereby future teachers were trained in the school. In a period of over fifty years there was not a single failure. Many Jewish schools in different parts of the country were staffed by Angel's former charges. Such was his reputation that A. J. Mundella, the Liberal Minister of Education, sought Angel's advice when the New Code of 1882 was about to be introduced into schools. Angel died in 1898 in his eightieth year. The school had to face two new challenges after the passing of the 1870 Education Act. The London School Board set up its own schools in the East End and an increasing number of Jewish children attended them. The second new development was the large influx of Jewish Russian immigrants into the East End, bringing language problems and the need to anglicize their children. Many at first could communicate only in Yiddish, but the school put much effort into teaching them English in order to make the new pupils indistinguish? able from their fellows. The list of JFS pupils who became famous in many different fields is impress? ive. They range from the artist Mark Gertler, intellectuals such as Israel Zang will and Selig Brodetsky, leading rabbis, actors such as David Kossoff, comedians including Bud Flanagan and Issy Bonn, and dance band leaders like Joe Loss and Oscar Rabin. The later history of the JFS is better known. With the fall in the Jewish East End population in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the JFS's future was in doubt; in 1922 the possibility of closure was considered. However, under 334</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes the inspiring headship of Dr Enoch Bernstein (1931-42) the school enjoyed what the author calls a golden era. The Second World War brought this period to an end: the school was badly damaged by bombing and, with its evacuation to Cambridgeshire, by 1944 the number of pupils had dwindled to 144. Thanks to the efforts of many individuals, it was determined that the school's demise was unthinkable, and the JFS opened in 1958 as a secondary school in purpose-built premises in Camden, drawing pupils from many parts of London. Its change from comprehensive to grant-maintained status caused some controversy, but the author ends on a positive note for the school's future. Dr Black has used a wide number of sources in telling the story of the school and the illustrations enhance the book. A list of the school's head teachers from its beginning would have been welcome, and this reviewer would have wished for the inclusion of more quotations from the inspectors' reports from the period of the Privy Council on Education. Overall, the book illuminates many aspects of Jewish education in England and will be of great interest to the general reader, current and former students and historians of education. Peter Gordon</page></plain_text>