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‘Downton Abbey’ and the Jews

Much more than a highbrow soap opera about a family of British aristocrats and their servants, “Downton Abbey” has been deeply rooted in the history and social issues of the early 20th century.
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February 25, 2015

Much more than a highbrow soap opera about a family of British aristocrats and their servants, “Downton Abbey” has been deeply rooted in the history and social issues of the early 20th century. Themes of class divides, changing morals and tradition versus progress have provided the backdrop for melodramatic storylines involving secrets, betrayals, liaisons and tragic deaths. In its fifth season, currently airing on PBS’ “Masterpiece,” the series has ventured into the issue of anti-Semitism for the first time with the introduction of an upper-crust Jewish family.

Young Lady Rose (Lily James) meets and falls in love with Ephraim Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), whose Jewish family fled pogroms in Russia 60 years before and have risen to the heights of British society. His father, Daniel Aldridge (James Faulkner), holds the title of Lord Sinderby, and the lord’s less-than-progressive attitudes emerge during a get-acquainted family dinner at the abbey. Robert and Cora Crawley (the abbey’s Lord and Lady Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) have no issue with the interfaith relationship, because Cora, after all, has a Jewish father. But Lord Sinderby opposes his son marrying outside the Jewish faith — Rose is a cousin with no Jewish blood — and his future grandchildren having a “little shiksa” for a mother.

“I have always been interested in the anti-Semitism of the British upper classes,” Julian Fellowes, creator, writer and executive producer of the series, said in an interview. Fellowes, 65, is not Jewish, but has witnessed anti-Semitism and had personal experience with it in his youth.

“I did see quite a lot of it,” he said. “My mother had no prejudice about that sort of thing — race or color or religion — she just tried to avoid people she thought boring. But my father had a trace of the slight anti-Semitism of his kind. Paradoxically, he had a lot of Jewish friends.” 

Fellowes revealed that Lord Sinderby’s disapproval of the match “even though Rose is well-born and suitable, because she is not Jewish, is from my own experience. My first real girlfriend in London came from a very prominent Jewish family, and it was my only experience of being seen as a thoroughly undesirable suitor. They very definitely did not want her to marry out of the faith, and so they did everything they could to discourage the match. Actually, I liked them very much, and later, when my ex had married a nice boy they approved of, we became good friends. But, in ‘Downton,’ I always like to show both sides, and I wanted to demonstrate that prejudice can exist in either social group.”

Fellowes went on to explain a bit about the history of British anti-Semitism. “The championship of Edward VII and his queen brought prominent Jews into society from the 1870s on. To some extent, [Benjamin] Disraeli [a 19th-century British prime minister] had broken through before that, but even he had to convert. One mustn’t overstate the speed with which peace and harmony was achieved. People like Sir Ernest Cassel, one of the king’s best friends, were still converting in order to be accepted, but some were brought into society despite remaining true to their faith, more so as the [19th] century drew to its close. I saw it as a young man, although there is no doubt that (World War II) and the aftermath made a lot of people rethink their prejudices, but such things take a long time to die.”

Although interfaith marriages were not common in British society, “There were a few,” Fellowes said. “The most famous was probably the heiress Hannah Rothschild, who married the Earl of Rosebery in 1878. “There were others,” he continued. “Viscountess Battersea was Jewish, and although Maud Cassel’s father had converted, she was still considered Jewish when she married Wilfred Ashley, later Lord Mount Temple. I don’t think it was an easy berth for any of them, any more than it would be for the American heiresses who married into the British upper classes at the turn of the century, as they were all, to a degree, on foreign territory. But the majority of them just got on with it, which I suspect, then or now, is the best way to deal with most of life’s problems.”

In Season 5’s eighth episode, Lady Rose and Atticus encounter a potential roadblock on the way to the altar. Rose’s mother, Lady Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls), who is estranged from her husband and fearing she’ll “be an outcast,” attempts to break the younger couple up by fabricating a scandal, ultimately thwarted by Lord Flintshire (Peter Egan). They marry in a civil ceremony and return from their Venice honeymoon as the Christmas episode, which is set in December 1924, begins.

Airing March 1, the season finale marks Atticus’ first exposure to Christmas. But the storyline “is more about the resolution of the relationships within the family, rather than dealing with the Jewish/Christian marriage issue,” Fellowes said. 

The anti-Semitism plotline met with approval in Britain when the series aired there last year. “People seemed to get involved with it and, rather movingly, I was thanked by a Jewish peer in the House of Lords because he and his family felt we had put forward a very truthful account of what it is like to be a Jew in British society,” Fellowes said. “There can be no question that the tone of the show is against any kind of anti-Semitism, and so nobody seemed to take offense at a pretty truthful display of it.”

Fellowes stressed that, as a non-Jew, he doesn’t set himself up as an authority. “I like to think that these themes provoke conversation and discussion, just as I hope people examine the way they treat their own employees, or members of their family, or whatever, as a result of the drama. I have witnessed that genteel anti-Semitism for myself, and I think today, when such feelings — and rather less genteel ones — are on the rise, in Europe at any rate, I think it a good idea to pull back the curtain and let people look at it in all its ugliness.”

Although mention is made of a job offer in Boston that will send the newlyweds across the Atlantic, “I think we will see Rose and Atticus again,” said Fellowes, who is gearing up for the sixth and final season of “Downton Abbey.” 

“More than that I could not say.”

The season finale of “Downton Abbey” airs March 1 at 9 p.m. on PBS. 

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