Our Britain on Film project’s latest archival journey delves into Jewish life on screen with a collection of almost 100 documentaries, home movies, fiction features and shorts from the BFI National Archive and partner archives, most of them available to view free in the UK.
Small Jewish communities have existed in the UK since the time of William the Conqueror, but the birth of cinema in the 1890s coincided with the arrival of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in eastern Europe where mass pogroms foreshadowed the unimaginable horrors of the 1940s.
Depictions of Jews in early British cinema often reflected negative stereotypes of the day, fuelled by the Aliens Act 1905, which curbed immigration – thanks to mass unemployment and a hysterical xenophobia with echoes in the 21st century.
But while troubling tales of oppression and misrepresentation are woven through the collection, so too are joyous records of flourishing Jewish life, from secular assimilation-minded suburban families to strict orthodox groups. Celebrations embrace 1920s weddings (check out Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel and Mr Solly Gerschcowit) and 1960s bar mitzvahs. And long-gone communities are captured on film just in time (Robert Vas’s melancholic classic The Vanishing Street is available alongside newly digitised production material).
London is a major focal point, but these stories extend well beyond the capital. The collection is all the richer for the contribution of our partner archives, including the North East Film Archive, North West Film Archive, Screen Archive South East, Yorkshire Film Archive, National Screen & Sound Archive of Wales and the Northern Ireland Screen Digital Film Archive.
You’ll also find a selection of rental titles ranging from E.A. Dupont’s multilingual epic Two Worlds (1931) and This Week documentary Britain’s Jews (1965) to the riotous romcom Suzie Gold (2003) and bare-knuckle boxing drama Orthodox (2016). The highlights below – all free to view – offer a snapshot of the collection’s breadth and diversity.
The Wicked One – What Does He Say? (1934)
Among the most extraordinary rediscoveries in the collection, this amateur fiction film draws on Yiddish melodrama in its tale of a grief-stricken rabbi recollecting life in his home country, only to find that tragedy has followed him to his new life in the UK.
The film’s title derives from the ‘Four Sons’ passage of the Passover Haggadah text. Flashback scenes of the sacred Seder (feast) violently desecrated by murder and rape represent the eastern European pogroms and are all the more disturbing given the renewed tide of antisemitism then engulfing 1930s Germany with imminent catastrophic consequences for European Jewry.
The present day scenes reflect the hardship faced by many Jewish refugees, reliant on charitable organisations like the Jews’ Temporary Shelter in London’s East End, used by the rabbi in the film. Rare footage shot the same year at the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Spitalfields is also included in the collection.
By Gosh It’s Hot / A Day Out at Whitby (1964)
Home movies offer a more personal insight into life for different communities. This charming example from the Yorkshire Film Archive is an extended compilation of scenes filmed over several years and shows everyday life as well as special events for an ordinary Leeds family.
This family happens to be Jewish and the various celebrations and gatherings feature lashings of kosher food including chopped liver, matzo ball soup and the familiar large matzo crackers (still made in Leeds today). We see the kids larking about at Whitby Abbey and a spot of dancing in the front room shows the influence of 60s pop culture (see also Harold Defries Bar Mitzvah for a fun Jewish twist on the Twist).
This film is from the collection of Jack Goldberg, a prolific amateur filmmaker whose parents, like many Jewish refugees of the era, fled to England to escape the Russian pogroms at the turn of the century. Jack ran a Jewish grocery called the Modern Food Store in Roundhay, Leeds.
The Jewish Community in Ulster (1966)
Largely confined to Belfast, Northern Ireland’s tiny Jewish community – around 1,200 members at its peak – had a big impact on the city from the mid-19th century through the efforts of linen merchants, industrialists and philanthropists, many from Germany. These included Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, partner in the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the RMS Titanic was built, and later MP for Belfast East.
These 1960s rushes from the Ulster Television archive capture a community in decline, but a proud and resilient one, as we hear from locals Mr Hill and Mr Endlander. UTV’s reporter also gives a tour of the new Somerton Road synagogue designed by Eugene Rosenberg, and we see preparations for the Shabbat meal. Many young Jews left Northern Ireland in search of work, and to escape the Troubles, and today the community numbers fewer than 80 members.
Just One Kid (1974)
Haunting glimpses of a vanished East End abound in this moving ATV drama-documentary following Alfred Maron, a Jewish tailor-turned-character actor going back to his roots. Colour scenes of Maron revisiting what’s left of the streets and tenements, and reflecting on the area’s rapidly changing cultural mix, flash back to black-and-white recreations of a poverty-stricken 1930s childhood. Fellow East Ender Bernard Kops wrote the screenplay, with children from the Jewish Free School playing young Alfred’s schoolmates.
The community’s charitable role, in this case providing clothes and funding a holiday for Alfred – and by extension his exhausted mum and bedridden dad – is a recurring theme in the collection. The wonder and homesickness of the little boy’s trip to Kent – where he sees the sea for the first time – is beautifully realised.
Screen depictions of Britain’s strictly Orthodox Haredi Jewish communities are rare (Susanna White’s Stamford Hill-set documentary Volvo City, broadcast in C4’s Cutting Edge strand in 1991, is a notable exception), yet the Haredim is the fastest-growing part of the UK Jewish population.
London Film School alumna Julia Dover offers a valuable insight into the closed world of Hasidic women with her candid short Simcha (meaning happiness). Mother Ita and daughter Hindi are fiercely proud of their ancestry, fundamentally opposed to assimilation, and are passionate advocates of women’s central role in nurturing this historically persecuted and misunderstood community. “We’re so much more important in our culture than men are. How can you say our religion discriminates against women?”
Viewers outside of the UK can watch highlights from the collection on our Jewish Britain on Film YouTube playlist.