Does “Downton Abbey” Have a Jewish Problem?

Atticus Aldridge, Downton's very British Jew (pinterest.com).

Atticus Aldridge, Downton’s very British Jew (pinterest.com).

Lady Rose seems to specialize in dating men who raise her family’s hackles. Men who represent the edge of polite society in some sense. Last season, it was a charming African-American jazz singer, and this week, it was Downton Abbey’s first Jewish character, Atticus Aldridge.

Aldridge’s name sounds quintessentially British and not at all Jewish (being neither Hebrew nor Yiddish); the same could be said of his look and comportment. He is fully assimilated.

Rose, being neither Jewish nor Russian, suspects nothing about Aldridge’s heritage. Hearing that he has “Russian blood,” she thoughtfully introduces Atticus to the Russian Revolution refugees she has been helping.

Prince Kuragin learns the Aldridge family hailed from Odessa and left in two waves, in 1859 and 1871, years that coincided with two massive pogroms. Without missing a beat, Kuragin realizes Aldridge is Jewish and advises him to keep his provenance to himself, lest the other refugees share their old country anti-Semitism with him. After all, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a late 19th-century forgery about a supposed global Jewish conspiracy, was produced by members of the czar’s secret police, and interestingly in the context of Downton, it was “exposed as a fiction by the Times of London as early as 1921.”

Kuragin’s was wise guidance, because as Count Rostov later proves, these Russians don’t consider the Jews who previously lived among them Russians (as the fleeing Jews knew). They were outsiders. Jews in Russia and the rest of Europe have always been The Other. The only person who seems surprised by this realization is the charmingly naive Lady Rose.

When Atticus tells Rose that he is Jewish, she is totally unfazed. She acts like it is the world’s most natural thing that he be both British and Jewish. Atticus’ relief and personal euphoria reflect both a young man’s heart fluttering as he gazes at a beautiful young woman and the harsh reality of Jewish history.

Atticus may not be accustomed to savagery, like the pogroms the Aldridges fled before changing their family name, but he knows the softer bigotry of 1920s Britain’s casual anti-Semitism. It is undoubtedly no coincidence that the Aldridges ruffled aristocratic feathers with their new peerage.

Rose either knows none of this, or cares not because she is remarkably open-minded. With Rose’s accepting comment, Atticus is moved to invite her to dinner, an act of courtship. And with that gesture, Atticus made this practicing Jew cringe.

Why? For starters, Atticus seemed so grateful not to be hated for his Jewish heritage. I recognize how fortunate I am to live in 21st-century America, where anti-Semitism still exists but is unbelievably mild by historical standards. Still, I can’t imagine having to be grateful to people for not hating me because my mother is Jewish, and I practice the religious traditions of my ancestors. It felt so demeaning. And antiquated.

I say this knowing that 8% of the British public and 30% of the Russian public recently told the Anti-Defamation League’s pollsters that they still believe ancient anti-Semitic tropes. (Some things really do belong in the dustbin of history.)

Further, as a practicing Jew, I’m wary of Atticus’ ending up with Rose. It would feel like an attempt to disappear into the crowd, as Cora’s father did a generation earlier. And given that Jews don’t proselytize, if we don’t marry with an eye toward raising Jewish children, we will literally disappear. That would be a sad fate for such a lovely character. I’m proud of my Judaism and wish the same for Atticus, as we learn more about him and his family.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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