Between 1851 and 1871, the number of Jewish families living in Edgbaston had increased from two to a hundred - an indication of the growing prosperity of many Jews.1 John Phillips was one of a number of influential Jewish figures later featured in the Edgbastonia magazine.
John Phillips, born in 1836, was accorded high praise for his philanthropic work. A prominent member of Birmingham’s first Jewish charity, the Hebrew Philanthropic Society, which had been founded to grant relief to tradesmen through loans, purchase of tools and old-age pensions, Phillips founded the Hebrew Board of Guardians in 1870. He also pioneered free education through the Hebrew Benevolent Educational Aid Society, which helped families with fees for higher education, and classes in drawing, music and languages. Additionally, Phillips played a part in Birmingham public life as a town councillor.2
Research into the distribution of Jewish families in Edgbaston in the late nineteenth century shows that they were concentrated into two areas, one around Pershore Road and the other around Hagley Road, near to Calthorpe Road where Phillips lived. Many prosperous Jewish families were keen to assimilate into non-Jewish society, and it has been suggested that some were mistrustful of poorer Jewish immigrants from whom they sought to distance themselves.3 To some extent this phenomenon can be observed in Edgbastonia.
On the one hand, prominent Jewish individuals and families are included in the pantheon of ‘Edgbastonians Past and Present’. In June 1885, an article on George Joseph Emmanuel of the Hebrew Congregation offers readers a detailed history of Jewry in Birmingham. Later we meet Councillor David Davis, who followed his father Michael into local politics, and was involved in a similar range of philanthropic activities as Phillips.4 Lawrence Levy’s most colourful exploits lay in weightlifting, in which he excelled and performed at the Town Hall; he also founded the Jewish Amateur Dramatic club in 1872, was involved in the Birmingham Athletic Club which produced several Jewish long-distance runners, and ran a private school in Wheeley’s Road until 1891.5 The achievements and contributions of these and other remarkable Jewish men are ranked alongside those of non-Jewish ‘worthies’. In the same publication, however, we also find features that hint at anti-Semitism. Humourous tales poke fun at characters with ‘Yiddish’ accents, caricaturing them as either stupid or devious.6 We cannot tell how wealthy Jewish recipients of the magazine would have responded to this kind of material. If, as Joseph suggests, they wished to distance themselves from more recent immigrants and Yiddish speakers, they may have seen such anti-Semitism as irrelevant to them.
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