Much beloved British period drama “Downton Abbey” is bidding adieu. A British and American coproduction, the trailer for the show’s swan song, season six debuting September 20 in the United Kingdom, and January 3 in the United States, has just premiered online.
The show picks up about six months where it left off in Season 5. Now circa 1925, rumor has it that its Jewish characters move to New York.
Was there such a trend in Jewish history?
Theirs is not the first intermarriage among the families in question: Lady Cora Grantham’s phantom father is referred to as the Jewish dry goods multimillionaire scion, Isadore Levinson. But the union of the young sweethearts is not without controversy on the show, and the same would have been true for any wealthy British Jews in the inter-war period.
Indeed, the “unsuitability” of Lady Rose in the eyes of the Atticus’s father Lord Sinderby (who memorably called her a “shiksa”) was based, series creator and writer Julian Fellowes told Time magazine, on a relationship he had with a girl from a wealthy Jewish family in which he was found “undesirable.”
“When [Lord Sinderby] explains why he doesn’t want to have non-Jewish grandchildren, you do — or I hope you do — slightly understand his point of view and you slightly sympathize,” Fellowes said to Time in February.
The inter-war period was not, in general, an easy time for Jewish immigrants seeking to immigrate to the US. In 1921, Congress passed an emergency national origins quota law that limited annual migration at three percent of the number of immigrants from each country already present in the country. The new immigration limits were based on the 1910 census, says Marc Dollinger is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University.
By 1924, Congress had passed even more stringent laws, reducing the quota to 2% and moving the baseline back in time to population figures recorded in the 1890 census.
“Effectively, these two laws all but barred immigration from southern and eastern Europe — hence, most all Jews,” Dollinger says. “England, on the other hand, kept a high quota number due to the large number of English-descended folks in the US in 1890. Given that few English needed to immigrate in the 1920s — compared to southern and eastern Europeans, the quotas were pretty meaningless.”
That good news would have made immigration more possible for Jewish residents of the UK, such as those portrayed in “Downton Abbey.”
And that naturally raises the question: Aside from personal reasons, would there have been any social, political or economic issues among the populace that would have led Jews to voluntarily leave England between the world wars?
“By and large, there was no substantial Jewish emigration from the UK to the USA in the inter-war period,” says Sam Johnson, senior lecturer in Modern European History and International Coordinator for History at Britan’s Manchester Metropolitan University.
Although British anti-Semitism existed, as it still does as “a discourse,” it rarely took any other significant form, Johnson says. As British Jews became more middle-class, they were able to take advantage of educational opportunities. And by the 1930s, Johnson says, British Jews were largely acculturated and moving to the US presented no great economic opportunities for them.
Intermarriages between Jews of any economic status were, by and large, still rare in the inter-war period
Intermarriages between Jews of any economic status were, by and large, still rare in the inter-war period. Those numbers increased post-World War II, with numbers of synagogue marriages decreasing from the 1950s onward, as part of a general trend toward secularization, Johnson says.
As “Downton Abbey” comes to a close, the prospect of a second world war looms large. In fact, Season 5 was the first to allude to the Nazis when brownshirt thugs are blamed for the death of Lady Edith’s beau, Michael Gregson, the father of her daughter. By the time she and her cousins were to come of age, World War II would be raging and their own fates in question.
In previous episodes, the show gave a shout-out to another Jewish family, the Rothschilds. Bankers like Attitcus’ father, Lord Sinderby, built so many country houses that a slice of Buckinghamshire became known as “Rothschildshire,” notes The Jewish Chronicle.
The show is filmed at Highclere Castle, which was spared from bombing during World War II and became a home for children seeking refuge during the blitz on London.
During WWI, as on the show, the castle became a hospital for soldiers. In reality, this was due to the efforts of Lady Almina de Rothschild, the fifth countess and illegitimate daughter of the Jewish banker, Alfred de Rothschild. Her immense dowry and inheritance were intrinsically tied to the Castle, which she modernized.