Downtown Abbey’s new Jew—Our Rose’s dishy friend Atticus Aldridge—has caused quite the ripple in Jewish media. So far, the articles take for granted some knowledge of Jewish history: they assume readers understand or at least half-remember from Hebrew School electives the details behind why the Aldridge family—operating under a less goyische surname—left Russia in the years 1859 and 1871. And, they don’t explain the climax of the scene—henceforth called the Tea With Jew scene: the outburst of Count Whatsit shrieking that Atticus was “not Russian” and that his family had never been Russian, even while they lived in Russia.
The outburst mystifies Rose. It mystified my own dear friend who came to my house the day after the episode aired. I daresay it mystifies many people who did not take Hebrew School electives. Perhaps Rose’s questions will be answered in a future episode, but until then, I feel I owe my friend a nutshell.
The family of Rose’s mensch emigrated from Odessa right after two of Russia’s infamous pogroms. Some pogroms were grass-roots attacks condoned by authorities, and some were begun and backed by the Tsarist regime. In the story, the pogroms in question are 1859 and 1871, so the Aldrich family got one of each. Imagine Jews those years, living in Russia: what rights did they have, even when they were not under direct, physical assault? How safe were they? Not many rights, not safe at all.
Three words: Pale of Settlement. From 1791-1917, Jews were restricted as to where they could live, where they could travel, what they could own and how they could make a living.
More background info that should help paint the scene from which the fictional family fled: from 1827 to 1856, all Jewish males were required to serve in the Russian military for 25 years, and boys as young as 8 were drafted. Kidnappings were common. Forced conversions were common. Jewish children were required to join state-run schools whose ultimate purpose was to speed assimilation and conversion.
These facts help explain the fictional Count’s freakout: Atticus’s family wasn’t Russian enough. They never would be. They were Jewish. For the government, “real” Russian citizenry, and of course for Rose’s cake-gobbling émigrés, Russian and Jewish were mutually exclusive identities.
The irony in Downton’s Tea With Jew scene is so thick you couldn’t cut it with a cake knife. As Atticus says, his family has “done well” in England. The tea tables have turned.
If Atticus wasn’t the mensch he seems written to be—so gallant, so modest, so grateful—he could have rubbed some émigré nose in it right then, right there in the makeshift charity tearoom. Though nouveau and Jewish, his family is already English enough to have become wealthy landowners—and dayeinu, nobility to boot. Unlike their former oppressors, they can afford to buy their own cake.
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Jewish Emigration in the 19th Century from MyJewishLearning.com
Anti-Jewish Pogroms in the Russian Empire from Wikipedia
Pale of Settlement from Jewish Virtual Library
Odessa Pogroms from Wikipedia
Cantonist Decrees from YIVO
Downton Abbey’s Nice Jewish Boy at Tablet Magazine (recommended!)
Downton Abbey Hosts Hot Hebrew Hunk at The Times of Israel
Downton Abbey Gets a Jew at Jewcy