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My latest piece for The Electric Agora (which I linked to from my G+ Collection, Language, Logic, Life) dealt with various kinds of mythical or magical thinking, especially as it applies to nationalism. The article sparked an extended argument in the comment thread (which carried over into a subsequent article) about the role of reason and emotion and myth in politics and ordinary life.

One focus of the discussion was Zionism and Israel. Actually, I don't have a fully worked out view on these topics. The main point I was making was that religious ideas – especially those which are based on a literalistic approach to sacred texts – can cause problems when they are applied to political questions and policy-making. My focus was on American foreign policy. More generally, I like the idea of keeping religion out of politics as far as possible.

Daniel Kaufman, a philosopher at Missouri State and founding editor of The Electric Agora, was my main critic here. I think he misunderstood me. He certainly mischaracterized what I was saying, both about Israel and about the respective roles of myth and reason. This discussion extended into the comment thread of a subsequent piece (by E. John Winner) and was – I think – more or less satisfactorily resolved.

Unlike me, Dan knows Israel. As a boy growing up on Long Island, he used to spend the summers in Israel where members of his extended family lived. In fact his parents were amongst the founding generation of the Jewish state. His father fought with the Haganah in the late 1940s (against the British). In the comment thread, Dan posted a photo [attached] of a group – which includes his mother and her sister – arriving by train in Switzerland. They had recently been imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen.

As I say, I think he was, especially in his initial comment, grievously mischaracterizing what I was saying, but I won't try to summarize the issues here. I just want to say that I believe that this sort of discussion is useful and that it is nearly always better to try to deal openly with awkward and sensitive issues, especially when the discussion is among friends and conducted in a spirit of goodwill.

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A correspondent from Florida talked about her Lancashire ancestors: "... [M]y ancestry includes English people named Abram (and originally Abraham) from the North Meols area. When I took my DNA test there were no Eastern European genes, but there was Iberian."

North Meols, Lancashire, is, on the face of it, not a very likely place to find Jewish families, being a rural area with strong Norse connections. But the name Abram/Abraham is usually of Jewish origin and the Iberian DNA supports this.

One of the main points I have made in previous posts is that I believe that the extent of Jewish immigration into Britain from Spain and Portugal has been seriously underestimated.

There is arguably little surviving documentary evidence of these migrations, but genetic research is providing new data which will enable us to build a much more accurate historical narrative, one which may well change the way many of us perceive our cultural and ethnic identities.

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I received an email recently from John Pyke who had some interesting things to say about the surnames Pyke, Pike and Mosely. He had wanted to post a public comment but presumably didn't want to open a G+ account. I will be posting (with his approval) his email as a comment on my post English Jewish Surnames Revisited.

From his original letter: "... My surname Pyke clearly comes from the very English Pykes of Devon/Dorset (g-g-father, also John, migrated from Lyme Regis) but there are also the more famous Jewish Pykes – Geoffrey the inventor of Pykecrete and his cousin Magnus of TV fame. I wonder what Jewish name their ancestor abandoned when assimilating? (Only partially assimilating, because their granddad although going by an Anglo name played a leading role in the London synagogue, I found somewhere). Bios of all of them in the Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, but no sign of how far back they had been Londoners and what name earlier generations had had.

"Then, though I don't think my Pyke ancestors were the least bit Jewish or related to the London ones, the family story is that g-g-mother Mary Mosely who married a Heath from Devon was Jewish. If the surname was originally Moses or something similar, how ironic that they should pick the good English locality name Mosely to sound more English – but then it was a century before Oswald so how were they to know?"

Oswald Mosely, in case you're wondering, was an English fascist leader. In my reply I noted that Hecht is a Jewish surname – and the German word for pike (the fish).

John Pyke replied (in part): "As to Pikes, I did find a page on that said that a Jew from Amsterdam called Snoek had a heap of sons all called Pike who were living in England so yes you probably should add it... And if Mosely is not on your list you should add it too, and note the irony. Though I must say we have no proof of Mary Mosely's Jewishness or any sign of her ancestry. [A distant cousin] had also heard that she was supposed to have been Jewish so I presume that the story had come down from a Heath of an earlier generation, and is most likely true."

I will also be adding a few other names (or snippets of information related to names that are already there) to my list. Here are the details:

Horwich, Hurwich (from the town Horovice in Bohemia?); Gordon (from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman); Halperin (from Helbronn, Germany); Heller (from Halle, Germany); Hollander (from a town in Lithuania settled by the Dutch); Hendler.

In due course I will post an updated version of the list.

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A few notes on the names Chaplin and Hill. The English name Chaplin is on my – still evolving – list of possible English Jewish surnames. It can sometimes, apparently, be traced back to the name Chaplya (of Ukrainian or Belarusian origin); and sometimes to Kaplan (one example being the American composer/musical director Saul Chaplin, who was born (in 1912) with the surname Kaplan).

I recently asked an acquaintance whose surname is Chaplin about the origins of her ancestors. She said there was a family story of her Chaplin ancestors having come from France. There is a similar story in my own family; the point is, name changes often occur following these moves. (There was a 19th-century French painter called Charles Joshua Chaplin, but his father was English.)

When I was originally considering adding 'Chaplin' to the list, I wondered in particular about the filmmaker and actor Charlie Chaplin. It's not clear whether or not he was Jewish. He is/was often assumed to be, but he didn't discuss the issue. In fact, his origins are uncertain. There are certainly doubts about his date and place of birth. Chaplin claimed to have been born in London on April 16, 1889. When he was under investigation by US and UK state security services on account of his communist sympathies, it was revealed that there was no birth certificate. His early life in London was very impoverished.

This is from an article in The Telegraph (UK) from February 2012:

"The mystery surrounding his origins emerged when the US authorities asked MI5 to look into the comic actor's background after he left America in 1952 under a cloud of suspicion over his communist links.

"But British officers could find no birth certificate and the earliest official record was a passport issued in 1920.

"They investigated suggestions he was born in Fontainebleau, near Paris, or nearby Melun, while the Americans claimed his real name was Israel Thornstein and raised the idea he may have been a Russian Jew.

"Despite extensive searches, MI5 could find no evidence of any of the claims leaving his true origins a mystery to this day."

Chaplin's mother Hannah's maiden name was Hill, and there are suggestions that some of her ancestors were Gypsies (or 'Travellers'). 'Hill' can also be Jewish, however.

See, for example, a recent comment on my post 'English Jewish surnames revisited'. The commenter was referring (I think) to his own ancestors. He wrote:

"The German Jewish surname Hildesheim (descendants of brothers David and Hermann Hildesheim) in England was anglicized variously in the early 20th century to Hilton, Harris and Hill."

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I've just posted (in my collection The Decline of the West) some general thoughts about Jonathan Miller's views as presented in a piece by Ben Silverstone which was published exactly ten years ago in The Jewish Chronicle. [See that post for a link.] This post is based on extracts from the article -- and focused specifically on the question of Jewish identity.

His father, explained Miller, was an "amphibious Jew" in that he was half in and half out of the water.

"He could scarcely have been more English," Miller said. "Nevertheless, he was still a creature of Jewish culture: he still engaged in the calendar of Jewish events, which he tried to get me to participate in."

His mother was less interested in her Jewish background than his father. Miller says that "she was only interested in being a writer: she was aware that she was Jewish, but also utterly bored by it: she only ever felt Jewish because of the projections of antisemitism.”

Silverstone continues...

"Like mother, like son. Miller rejects a Jewish affiliation predicated on descent (“How far back should I go in order to identify? On that basis, if you’re going to be Darwinian about it, I’m also a chimpanzee”), choosing, instead, to assert a Jewishness by default, principally in opposition to antisemitism (“When I’m asked, I raise my hand and say, ‘Yeah, I’m one. What do you want to make of it?’”).

"He has little time, too, for Jewish cultural allegiances. While he remarks upon the near-universal Jewish ancestry of his New York Review of Books crowd (“so insistent was it that [the poet] Robert Lowell, who was part of that circle, felt the need to assure me that he was one-eighth Jewish”), he also stresses the fact that none of his friends “ever discussed Jewishness or lived what you would recognise as Jewish lives.”

"Indeed, in subsequently directing “The Merchant of Venice” with Laurence Olivier in 1970, it was Miller who had to rein in his lead actor’s Semitic tendencies. “Olivier arrived at one of the first rehearsals with all these completely clichéd ideas about how he ought to look since he was playing a Jewish character. I had to get him to take all this stuff off his face - ringlets, facial equipment, a pair of dentures on which he spent £1,500. ‘Shylock’s just a businessman,’ I said, ‘let the Jewishness take care of itself.’ In the end, I managed to get him to remove it all, except the teeth. I don’t think they were conspicuously Jewish teeth - whatever that might be - it was just that he spent so much money getting those teeth done and I felt it would have been uncharitable to ask him to shed the dentures.”

"It’s not that Miller objects in particular to an attachment to the Jewish faith: more that he rejects the ideas of faith and attachment themselves. Just appointed as president of the Humanist Society, Miller recently had a three-part series on the history of atheism broadcast on BBC2. He professes a social, rather than philosophical, interest in the subject.

"“I’m bored with metaphysics: what things are for, what the destiny of the human race is, what the purpose of it is. Although it looks like a vast cumulo-nimbus of significance, it means absolutely nothing to me. The only reason I feel a need to take a stand against religion is that it’s a powerful social force in the name of something absurd. For the series, I was interested in the fact that while disbelief is increasingly central to our lives, it’s threatened by the growth of various forms of fundamentalism, committed to serving a vengeful god. People are too obsessed with religious and national and ethnic identity.”"

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Jonathan Miller is one of those multi-talented people whose stars shone brightly for a time but then faded, leaving a sense, perhaps, of promise unfulfilled. I know that Miller has expressed some regrets about the course his life has taken. He sees himself, I think, primarily as an intellectual and a man of science rather than identifying fully with the areas in which he has spent the most time working and for which he is mainly known (entertainment and the arts).

At the time he gave this interview [see video] his star was shining bright. The excerpt deals specifically with the theme of Jewishness. Miller defends Jews who, like himself, choose to assimilate. Though a number of his statements are strong and unequivocal, I'm not sure that his overall position, as expressed here, is entirely clear or consistent (especially on the issue of "solidarity"). But then perhaps a degree of ambiguity and even inconsistency is inevitable when we are dealing with the thorny issue of Jewish identity.

I agree with most of the points that Miller makes. Assimilating Jews are all too often seen by other Jews as betraying their heritage. I understand the reasons for this but, like Miller, I think it's nonsense to talk about betrayal.

I don't know the details, but all of my most recent Jewish ancestors took an assimilatory path. On what grounds could we deem their decisions to be wrong or unfortunate? They made their choices on this and many other (often more important) matters: it just seems inappropriate for others to pass judgment.

If one believes in the basic tenets of Judaism (however they might be understood), then – sure – it may seem unfortunate that someone born into this faith decides to renounce it. I know that Judaism is not a creedal religion like Christianity is, but (as I see it) it only really makes sense as a religion if it is seen to incorporate certain beliefs (for example – and most importantly – that the God of the Bible is real in more than a mythical, symbolic or psychological sense). Miller also sees the issue in these terms apparently. He says he can't accept "the creed".

If you set aside Judaism there are still of course many valuable things which could be seen to characterize modern Jewish culture (or, more accurately, cultures). Intellectualism, respect for learning and education, a certain kind humour... One could easily extend the list. But I don't see how one could find in such things a compelling, unifying force, something strong and coherent enough to hold all those with Jewish ancestors together as a people going forward.

A shared history of oppression? Yes, Jews have often suffered discrimination and oppression, but these experiences varied from place to place and from time to time. And not all Jews suffered in this way. It is not a defining feature of being Jewish (as being associated with Judaism is).

It would be interesting to know if Miller's views changed as he got older. I may follow up on this.

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A few more thoughts on Jewish migration to Britain: my focus (for personal reasons) is on those who made the move before the middle of the 19th century.

One point I want to raise relates to a topic that came up recently in a comment on my blog post 'English Jewish surnames'. A commenter mentioned that his/her gentile great-grandfather had been lodging with a Jewish family in Birmingham and married a daughter of that family. They moved to Hertfordshire and became Christian spiritualists.

My speculation is that assimilating Jews were often drawn to nonconformist or marginal sects rather than mainstream churches. The 19th-century novelist George Eliot had a sympathetic interest in Jews, and explicitly wrote about them in Daniel Deronda. But I am also thinking of an earlier book of hers, Silas Marner. The book doesn't mention Jews or Judaism but the main character is obviously being presented as a Jew. I won't go into detail but he is described as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a slightly weird, quasi-Christian sect and as being unfamiliar with the rituals of the Church of England. He is a weaver by trade. (Jews were often involved in textile-related businesses, including weaving.)

Another point... Russell is a Norman name and one would normally expect families with this name to trace their roots back to the Norman invaders of the 11th century. But, in following up some Russell ancestors of mine, I came across a reference (in a book called The Families of County Dublin) to some Russells who lived in Dublin in the 18th century and who were merchants and weavers. Significantly, they were neither Catholics nor Episcopalians (the majority of Irish people were Catholic and there was a large Episcopalian minority). These Russells were Quakers.

There were also some notable Russells who were very active in Cork, merchants most of them. At least one was a draper. Some had links with Lisbon and one at least had business interests in (and travelled to) Brazil. This suggests to me that they were Sephardic Jews who had Portuguese roots, and that they may have simply adopted the name Russell and may not have had any connection to the Normans at all. (Russell is sometimes said to be a possible Sephardic name, but I don't have reliable information on this.)

Alternatively Portuguese Jews could have married into an established Russell family of that region, but I have found no evidence of this.

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It started when someone suggested to me that the surname of a grandparent of mine – Lester – sometimes indicated Jewish origins. I began doing a little research about my own family and, more generally, about the names which have been adopted by Jewish immigrants over the centuries. Sometimes they were names that sounded like their original Sephardic or Ashkenazi names, or were translations into English of the meanings of those names. But often immigrants adopted English names with no apparent links to their original names. At any rate, for whatever reasons, some English (or English-sounding) names are more suggestive of a Jewish background than others. I made a short list. It grew. Here it is as it stands at the moment (but I would advise you to go also to the linked post which includes further explanation and continues to receive comments which I try to respond to)...

Abrams, Adams, Albert, Allen, Alexander, Alpert, Ames, Angel, Ansell, Archer, Arnold, Asher, Asherson, Astley, Avery, Baker, Ball, Banks, Barber, Barkin, Barnard, Barnett, Baron, Barret, Barrett, Barron, Barrow, Bart, Barton, Bass, Batt, Beck, Becker, Beer, Belcher, Bell, Bellman, Belman, Belmont, Benedict, Bennet, Bennett, Benson, Bentley, Bernard, Berry, Bickel, Bickell, Bickle, Bird, Blond, Bloomfield, Black, Blacker, Blackman, Blackwell, Blank, Block, Blue, Bolton, Booker, Bookman, Brand, Brice, Brill, Brilliant, Briscoe, Brock, Brody, Brooks, Broomfield, Brower, Brown, Buckley, Burstin, Bush, Byrd, Cain, Carpenter, Carter, Chandler, Chaplin, Chester, Cline, Cobb, Cole, Coleman, Cook, Cooke, Cooper, Cope, Copeland, Copland, Cove, Cripps, Crossman, Crouch, Cutler, Darley, David, Davidson, Davies, Davis, Diamond, Dove, Draper, Eastman, Ellis, Ellman, Elman, Falk, Feldman, Finch, Fine (from Feinstein?), Finniston (from Feinstein), Firestone, Fish, Fisher, Forster, Foster, Fox, Frank, Franks, Fredman, Freedman, Freeman, Froman, Gardner, Garfield, Garland, Gilbert, Glass, Gold, Golden, Golding, Goldsmith, Good, Goodman, Goodwin, Gordon, Gould, Gray, Green, Greenfield, Greenwood, Grey, Gross, Hale (as variant spelling of Ashkenazic Halle), Halpern, Hancock, Harding, Harman, Harris, Harrison, Hart, Hartman, Harvey, Harwood, Hayman, Heller, Helman, Henry, Hering, Herring, Hickman, Hill, Hiller, Holden, Holder, Holman, Holt, Holton, Hook, Horn, Horne, Horton, Hyams, Hyatt, Hyman, Ivory, Jewel, Jewell, Jones (from Jonas or Jonah), Kane, Kay, Kaye, Kennard, King (from Koenig), Kline, Lambert, Landon, Landis, Lane, Lang, Langer, Langerman, Langley, Langman, Lawrence, Lawson, Leavit, Leavitt, Lee, Leigh, Leonard, Leslie, Lester, Levin, Levine, Levett, Levitt, Lewis, Libson (eastern Ashkenazic metronymic), Lincoln, Lipson (eastern Ashkenazic patronymic or in some cases variation of Lipschitz (Polish town)), Lipton, Little, London, Long, Lott, Low, Lowe, Lowy, Lucas, Lyon, Lyons, Lytton, Mack, Mander, Manders, Mann, Marchant, Marcus, Marks, Marshall, Martin, Marty, Mason, Maurice, Maxwell, May, Mayman, Merchant, Michael, Michell, Miller, Millman, Mitchell, Montague, Morris, Moss, Moyse, Myer, Myers, Nelson, New, Newman, Newmark, Nichol, Nicholl, Nicholls, Nichols, Nobel, Norman, Oliver, Paley, Palmer, Park, Parker, Parrish, Parsons, Pavey, Pearl, Pearlman, Peavey, Peavy, Peck, Perkins, Perry (from Pereira), Pepper, Phillip, Phillips, Pine, Pinner, Pittman, Platt, Polk, Pollard, Pollock, Pool, Poole, Porter, Portman, Posner, Powers, Price, Priest, Prince, Rae, Raine, Randall, Ray, Raye, Raymond, Reed, Rees, Reid, Rest, Rice, Rich, Robbins, Robert, Roberts, Robertson, Robin, Robins, Robinson, Ronson, Rose, Rosefield, Ross, Roth, Rothman, Rothwell, Sacks, Salmon, Salman, Sams, Sand, Sanders, Sandler, Sands, Sassoon, Saunders, Saville, Saxon, Selwyn, Sharman, Sharp (from German Scharf (= sharp-witted); or perhaps Shapiro), Sharpe (see previous), Shaw, Shayne, Sher (Ashkenazic, from word for scissors or shears as used by tailors), Sherman, Shields, Shinwell, Shore (from Schorr), Short, Silk, Sills, Silver, Silverstone, Simmonds, Simmons, Simon, Simons, Sims, Sinclair, Singer, Singleton, Sless, Sloman, Smith, Snell (from the German name Schnell), Snider (from word for tailor), Snyder (from word for tailor), Somers, Sommer, Sommers, Speed (from the German name Schnell), Spelling, Sperling, Spurling, Stanley, Stark (from Yiddish Shtark = strong), Starr, Sterling, Stone, Strong (translation of Yiddish Shtark?), Sugar, Summers, Sumner, Swan, Swann, Swanson, Syme, Symes, Symonds, Taft (from Tugendhaft), Tate, Taylor, Temple, Trilling, Turner, Uren, Vale, Waddell, Walker, Wall, Waller, Walt, Walter, Walters, Ward, Wardle, Waterman (from Wascherman or Wasserman(n)), Watt, Webber, Weller, White, Whiteman, Whitman, Wideman, Wiley, Winner, Winston, Winters, Winton, Wise, Wolf, Wolfson, Woolf, Worley, Yates, Young (from German Jung).

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A case of literary anti-Semitism from 1926. The author (a young Dorothy L. Sayers) makes in passing an oblique (and entirely implicit) suggestion to the effect that a rich old man is using his wealth to facilitate a marriage to a younger woman. It happens. So far, so harmless.

The man is 'elderly'. Fine. But the addition of the epithets 'Jew' and 'obese' changes things somewhat. The offending clause is clearly designed to titillate (with faint disgust) an audience primed to think ill of Jews.

Bear in mind that this Jewish customer in the jewellery store in the Rue de la Paix is only mentioned once – here – and does not come into the novel again.

[See link for direct quote.]

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I was going to post a link to an essay which Daniel Kaufman (a philosopher who teaches at Missouri State) wrote last year in which he outlined his particular take on Judaism. Unfortunately the site on which it ran has been closed, so let me just give the gist of what he was saying.

Basically he was arguing for religion without spirituality; without, that is, any supernatural beliefs or commitments of a 'spiritual' nature.

Kaufman thinks Judaism is an important element of Jewish identity, but he is not interested in its spiritual or belief-related side. Rather he focuses on its rituals and conventions which he sees as affirming the notion of Jewish nationhood understood (as far as I can see) in a straightforwardly secular way.

Kaufman attends a Reform synagogue: I'm not sure how common his views are amongst Reform Jews. (It's worth noting also that his family has long had strong ties to Judaism and some close family members suffered at the hands of the Nazis and/or played prominent roles in the Zionist movement.)

Though the article is no longer available, the (Disqus) discussion which it prompted is. I (amongst others) make a few points there which Kaufman responds to in some detail.

He and I talk about history and the Jewish people and not so much about his view of religion. He discusses the latter topic to some extent in his replies to other commenters. My general position [which I have discussed with him elsewhere] is that a religion which is reduced to its secular elements ceases to be a religion in any meaningful sense and would probably not be sustainable in the longer term.

As I see it, this poses problems for secular Jews who want Jews to maintain a distinct identity into the future.
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