Aliens at Prayer: Representing Jewish Life in the East End of London, c.1905

Shaw, Samuel (2018). Aliens at Prayer: Representing Jewish Life in the East End of London, c.1905. In: Shaw, Samuel; Shaw, Sarah and Carle, Naomi eds. Edwardian Culture: Beyond the Garden Party. Among the Victorians and Modernists. London: Routledge, pp. 133–153.


The Edwardian Era has recently been described as a ‘turbulent period’ in the representation of Anglo-Jewish experience. Anxiety over the influence of Jewish businessmen, and the ever-expanding tides of Jewish immigration into the East End of London, ensured that the status of the British Jew was regularly under the spotlight. There were two major outcomes of this public debate: the growth of the British Zionist movement, supported by Joseph Chamberlain, and the 1905 Aliens Act, the first anti- immigration law to go through British parliament.
In the midst of these developments, two Anglo-Jewish artists, Alfred Wolmark and William Rothenstein, embarked upon a series of paintings in the Jewish East End. The artists came from very different backgrounds: Rothenstein was born into a wealthy, liberal German-Jewish family in Bradford, whilst Wolmark was Polish by birth, moving to London in the late 1880s. Whilst Jewish subjects were a common feature of Wolmark’s early career, they only entered Rothenstein’s oeuvre for a brief period in the 1900s. Both artists, however, painted more Jewish subjects around 1905 than at any other point in their lives. This chapter questions why this was, and what part their paintings played in the wider debate surrounding Jewish immigration, assimilation and Zionism. It explores the complex Jewish identities of the two artists, and the ways that this played out in their art works.

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