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Downton’s Missing Jews

The hit period-specific PBS drama glosses over a crucial detail of 1920s England: anti-Semitism

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Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey. (Nick Briggs, Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE)
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Happy New Year! Do you watch Downton Abbey? Of course you do; you’re an English-speaking human being with access to machinery. (Ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer, especially if you have to provide it yourself.)

But you’re also—if our demographic research is anything like accurate—an English-speaking human being with more than a glancing familiarity with the laws of Moses and Israel, which means that when you first found out that the maiden name of Cora, the august and current Lady Grantham, was the very, shall we say, un-English Levinson, you may have done a little mental hora of joy. Of course, every Jewish-American woman is a princess, or so we’ve been told—but a countess? In the bizarre prism of the hereditary aristocracy, where the more minor the title the fancier it seems, that’s really quite something. We’ve arrived.

And then came the news that Season 3, long-awaited on these shores by the computer illiterate and law-abiding, would feature an appearance by Mrs. Levinson herself—played by none other than Shirley MacLaine—and you had to quickly think of a genteel upstairs euphemism for what you thought you might do to yourself in your excitement. Sure, she’s not exactly Bette Midler (who is old enough to be Elizabeth McGovern’s mother in cat years, which is how casting agents figure your age range if you are female), but she’s been kicking around Hollywood long enough to know her way around a Yiddish curse or two and might have been the Vilna Gaon in a past life.

But if you started fantasizing about Seder at Waddesdon Manor with the Rothschilds or, say, the deliciously glacial retort of Lady Mary to some Unity Mitford-esque baby fascist, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. (I’m one of the illegal downloaders Hugh Bonneville hates, and I know.) From the moment MacLaine’s hennaed and befeathered head peeks out from the door of her Rolls Royce Phantom, the J-word is never mentioned, never alluded to, never even euphemized (that is, unless you count “American”). The silence is not only glaringly anachronistic on a program so obsessed with accurate period details, if not accuracy itself. (This is Downton, after all, where the wrong class of person moving a tea tray can inspire a sudden recovery from total paraplegia.) It’s also a major loss of dramatic opportunity on a show that, having served us up one of the most dramatically inert representations of worldwide conflict—the Great War only killed characters that were dispensable, and everyone was able to make it home from the front for important black-tie events—can’t afford to miss many more.

At the least, it would have explained a couple of things: why the Crawleys seem always to be shut up in Yorkshire, away from any semblance of society; why three daughters of such illustrious name seem to have such relatively dismal marital prospects. Might it be due to the presence of a genuine Levite in the family tree? It certainly seems plausible, given that Aristocratic Britain in the teens and twenties was not exactly a place of enlightened toleration to those who were different. But Downton’s writers have imposed what amounts to total omertà on the matter of Cora’s ancestry.

Compare this silence to the scene from its beloved predecessor, the original—and far superior—Upstairs Downstairs, in which the presence of a genial financier named Max Weinberg at a hunting party is enough to send the assembled toffs into a seething, clench-jawed tizzy. It’s a small masterpiece of racial tension and class anxiety that is at least as interesting as a six-minute scene in which Carson the butler illuminates for us the proper function of a bouillon spoon. With every jab at Weinberg’s clothes, guns, and shooting ability—not to mention their perturbation at his cheery refusal to be visibly wounded by same—we know exactly what kind of world we’re in, and exactly what kind of people we’re dealing with.

But for Julian Fellowes, Downton’s creator and self-styled member of the “lower gentry” (this descriptor, presumably, meant as a charming stab at self-deprecation), this exclusion may be precisely the point. For all Downton Abbey’s soapy appeal, it is best understood as a kind of splashy apologia for feudalism, a paean to the concept of Divine Right. The upper class is rich and powerful because it deserves to be, being inherently superior in word, thought, and deed; and the humble downstairs folk are worshipfully grateful to brush their hair and polish their cuff links and receive cataract surgery so they can continue to spend their retirement years toiling in their kitchens. (The occasional troublemaker like Branson, who thinks himself an equal to the daughter of the house and that the Black and Tans were somewhat more sinister than a bunch of frat boys on a night that got out of hand, can be eased into submission with a suit of evening clothes and a silver salver of scrambled eggs. In the immortal words of Miranda Priestly: “Everyone wants to be us.”) To go too much in depth into how the vast majority of Lord Grantham’s peers—who even in the 1920s were beginning to coalesce into groups that would eventually become the appeasers, the Right Club, and the British Order of Fascists—might have felt about his wife’s father might make for good television, but it certainly might be a little, well, unflattering. Historical accuracy/dramatic tension vs. the rectitude of the ancient class system? In the Fellowes’ Weltanschauung, it’s really no contest.

Yet, ironically, the decision to make Cora a Levinson, as opposed to a Smith, or a Jones, or—what the hell—an Astor, may have given the aristocratic game away more than Fellowes himself may be aware. As a character, Cora is a bit of a cipher: supportive, concerned, always—as the great Anthony Lane said of another famous TV Jew, Sex and the City’s Harry Goldenblatt, “smiling sweetly at something known only to herself.” Her one immutable character trait is that she is very, very rich; it was the Levinson fortune, after all, that saved Downton in the first place. And whatever one might say about those people, one has to admit they’re awfully clever with money. Hasn’t one?

***

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I’m glad to see this, as I’ve been thinking about the same things.

My ears pricked up watching “The Real Downton Abbey” that preceded the season premiere, when I learned that the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild married into the family that presides over Highclere Castle, providing them with a much-needed infusion of cash. Perhaps Fellowes is attempting a parallel between the real and the fictional? That program didn’t make reference to religion or anti-Semitism, either – perhaps it’s accurate to depict that the old families were so desperate for salvation that they would overlook any “flaw”?

(Not to mention that the “Levinsons” and Rothschilds weren’t exactly flaunting their religious roots at that point, based on what I’ve read of the era. I gather they viewed themselves as entirely assimilated.)

    Paula B says:

    Yes, it seemed to me after watching that program that Downton Abbey was modeled after the real history of Highclere Castle, which is pretty interesting.

Having read the back story about “Cora Levinson” it said that her father was Jewish but she was raised Episcopalian. AT the time int he USA it was well accepted that a successful Jewish man would marry a gentile woman and his children would be raised Christian. Not odd just look at all the Hollywood moguls who dumped their Jewish wives for christian women as soon as they made it ‘rich.”

The truth is the story of Downton Abbey has nothing to do with racism, prejudice or society beyond the people in the mansion itself. The Irish issue is more important as that was the beginning of the 1920s and Michael Collins in Ireland, which at that time had more of an effect on the average Englishman than say an errant Jew in the family tree. This is afterall a BBC and purely English production.

This class of English aristocracy had no more love of Jews as they did Arabs or Africans, except that most Jews from America were Caucasian enough to be part of the family, albeit a hidden one at that. it would be interesting considering the time period that a Crawley may have to deal with that darn pesky Chaim Weitzmann or Mathew gets sent off to Palestine for some job or other. But I doubt it as this scenario really has very little to do with the story of the Crawley family.

Sometimes you know, you can just enjoy a program or a book for what it is and not look for a kvetch.

    frosty dufour says:

    Agree with your post, but I do wonder why bother to give Cora a Jewish father at all? I suspect it may become an issue when Hitler begins his rise–after all he had some real supporters among the British aristocracy.

Having read the back story about “Cora Levinson” it said that her father was Jewish but she was raised Episcopalian. AT the time int he USA it was well accepted that a successful Jewish man would marry a gentile woman and his children would be raised Christian. Not odd just look at all the Hollywood moguls who dumped their Jewish wives for christian women as soon as they made it ‘rich.”

The truth is the story of Downton Abbey has nothing to do with racism, prejudice or society beyond the people in the mansion itself. The Irish issue is more important as that was the beginning of the 1920s and Michael Collins in Ireland, which at that time had more of an effect on the average Englishman than say an errant Jew in the family tree. This is afterall a BBC and purely English production.

This class of English aristocracy had no more love of Jews as they did Arabs or Africans, except that most Jews from America were Caucasian enough to be part of the family, albeit a hidden one at that. it would be interesting considering the time period that a Crawley may have to deal with that darn pesky Chaim Weitzmann or Mathew gets sent off to Palestine for some job or other. But I doubt it as this scenario really has very little to do with the story of the Crawley family.

Sometimes you know, you can just enjoy a program or a book for what it is and not look for a kvetch.

ducdebrabant says:

Rothschilds, even in this period, could be high-hatted by people whose ancestors all came over with William the Conqueror (and the British Rothschilds knew all the rules, which American visitors might run afoul of), and I have a feeling that sneering comments would have been made by some during World War I (behind the Caernarvons’ backs) about a Rothschild heiress setting up a hospital in her “castle” (Highclere only started to look castellated in the 19th Century) and being lady bountiful. It doesn’t make a damned bit of sense to me that Cora would consider Mrs. Levinson all wrong in terms of her deportment and never attribute any of it to Jewishness, or that she would feel free to knock America and everything about it, knock Newport, and yet not knock the Jews. She might not say it in front of her son (or, come to think of it, she might), but she’d say it to somebody. I too noticed this omission. I also think O’Brien or Thomas is each entirely capable of saying something anti-Semitic to one another, especially since neither one of them takes to Mrs. Levinson’s maid.

    Well, it could even be that she comes from trailer trash.

      Arnold Berke says:

      The basic question here, to me, remains: WHY are Cora and Martha noted as
      Levinsons in the official PBS biography of the Downton characters — and the
      Levinson fortune is noted as a mercantile one (all of this adding up to their
      being Jewish) — yet neither Cora nor Martha, nor anyone reacting to their
      history, bring up the Jewish aspect?? This is especially odd concerning Violet, a master of deprecation with wit, who surely would not have restrained herself from some acid comment on Jews or American Jews. Perhaps it is indeed true that Fellowes had second thoughts as he wrote the later part of the series.

ducdebrabant says:

Rothschilds, even in this period, could be high-hatted by people whose ancestors all came over with William the Conqueror (and the British Rothschilds knew all the rules, which American visitors might run afoul of), and I have a feeling that sneering comments would have been made by some during World War I (behind the Caernarvons’ backs) about a Rothschild heiress setting up a hospital in her “castle” (Highclere only started to look castellated in the 19th Century) and being lady bountiful. It doesn’t make a damned bit of sense to me that Cora would consider Mrs. Levinson all wrong in terms of her deportment and never attribute any of it to Jewishness, or that she would feel free to knock America and everything about it, knock Newport, and yet not knock the Jews. She might not say it in front of her son (or, come to think of it, she might), but she’d say it to somebody. I too noticed this omission. I also think O’Brien or Thomas is each entirely capable of saying something anti-Semitic to one another, especially since neither one of them takes to Mrs. Levinson’s maid.

Another possibility is that Fellowes planned to make more of Cora’s ethnicity ( a la Upstairs Downstairs and Chariots of Fire) but then decided not to go there, not for semi-sinister reasons but because the story just took him in a different direction [this happens with authors, a lot]. He can’t change Cora’s maiden name, but he is free to ignore its implications, at the risk of inspiring pieces like this one.

    Perhaps Fellowes is holding this on the back burner to be dealt with in, say, season four. Interesting, As soon as I heard her name was Levinson, I went to myself — uh-huh! I wondered if many other Jews had the same thought. Anyway, it should be interesting if it is dealt with later and we might even follow the early years of the Zionist Movement – Lord Balfour, Chaim Weizmann and all.

Paula B says:

That solves a question I had. Why in the world was Shirly MacLaine eating like a barbarian? Because Americans do that? No, it was a much more subtle jab at the Jews!

    I have a different reading of this. I loved that she was enjoying her food with a passion totally absent from the rest of the stiffs at the table who didn’t know how to enjoy a good meal. I said to the TV while watching this episode, “you go girl — enjoy!”

    I agree. I couldn’t decide if they were trying to depict her eating like an mannered American or maybe a an old Jewish widow with money!

    ducdebrabant says:

    I think Mrs. Levinson kept playing with them, affronting their expectations, making a game of it. Her maid said she knew they laughed at her, and laughed at them too. Keeping them all at table while she finished the last bite of her dessert is something she would do just to goof on them, like singing to Maggie Smith.

    Ha, ha, Europeans do consider Americans in general to eat like barbarians, what with the putting down of knives and changing forks from left to right, or holding cutlery as if it was the rope of a swing.

Look, while Cora’s father may have been Jewish, Cincy at that time was full of yeckees who were not always against assimilation. So I would assume that Cora’s mother is not Jewish and that Cora was not raised Jewish. So chill out.

    brynababy says:

    Oh no, Cora’s mother is very clearly meant to be Jewish- in all it’s sterotypical characteristics!

      Admiral_Shackleford says:

      Well the one personality trait of Cora’s mother- Iconoclasm- Is not at all Jewish…

    ducdebrabant says:

    Whether Cora’s mother was Jewish or Cora was raised Jewish would be meaningless to an anti-Semite. Mrs. Levinson would still have the wrong last name, and Cora would still have the wrong father.

    mayacb says:

    See one of the letters above, Cora’s mother is not Jewish and she was brought up as an Episcopalian.

Being a Levinson myself, I looked forward to the new season with great expectation and was puzzled by the void around the Levinsons’ faith. As Rachel says, great drama arises from exploring the sympathies of the British aristocracy in the 1920’s and 30’s, eg. “Remains of the Day.” I wonder if Fellowes knows much at all about American Jewry at that time. Levinson is an eastern European Jewish name, and few Jews from eastern Europe had made fabulous fortunes in America by the 1920’s. German Jews were the uberweathy ones.

I’d like to note that many Brits were tremendous friends to the Jews. After Jewish quotas kept my father out of American medical schools (after he graduated from Yale with honors), University of Edinburgh accepted him. Many of the names of his fellow graduates were Jewish. Then, before D-Day, he spent many months in England as a GI and experienced much less antiSemitism there than he did in the States. To his death, my father felt deep gratitude and affection for the Brits.

politackler says:

Am I the only one who found Mrs. Levinson’s character offensive–crude,rude,and nouveau riche, (unpardonably!) openly speaking about having a lot of MONEY? I did not see the point of making her Jewish in terms of the plot. When I first read about Cora’s mother, portrayed by Shirley MacLaine, being Jewish, I immediately wondered if it was a bone thrown to flatter generous Jewish NPR supporters. After the show, I could not see anything flattering about the portrayal, nor anything it contributed to understanding the history of the period.

Ragarding the Rothschilds, the family made it a practice that the sons of the famil–the business’s heirs–marry only Jewish girls. The daughters were allowed to marry into the aristocratic families of Europe, giving the Rothschilds familial ties to the elite of European society.

gwhepner says:

JUDENREIN IN DOWNTON ABBEY

Downton Abbey must be Judenrein

and the Jewishness of Bobby Cora

must be concealed, to make sure that the shrine

is not contaminated by the Torah.

Yet if you’re watching very closely you

will see that Cora must be Jewish. She

hangs onto all her money like a Jew,

the fatal flaw in her identity.

Although all viewers know her national anthem

must be “The Stars and Stripes Forever”

the household that is headed by Lord Grantham

still clings to “Keep Out Jewish Types Forever.”

Gershon Hepner

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Having spent a year at Southampton Uni., i became slightly familiar with the life of local aristocrats Lord and Lady Swaythling (one entire neighbourhood of the town is named after them or more precisely after their manor). They were both Jewish and religious, a they were living the (extra)ordinary life of the British upper-class while observing on to at least the major holidays of their faith and keeping up a dynamic connection with Anglo-Jewish cultural scene in the same period (1920’s). So the picture is not black-and-white at all .

Elena Brunn says:

I believe that Rothschild never acknowledged Almina, Countess of Cararvon as his daughter. I like the show for its escapism, not its mechanistic plot twists. Oh, the clothes! The cars! It’s a valentine to the English version of America’s happy plantation.

But she’s not a practicing Jew, according to the official companion book: http://www.timesofisrael.com/sorry-fans-no-yiddishkeit-at-downton-abbey/

frankgado says:

So, Rachel, you don’t like that a character stereotyped as Jewish is played by a gentile. How do you think I felt while growing uo seeing all the stereotypical Italians played by Jews?

Rosenblatt says:

Most everyone sees this Rothschild/Levinson connection through his or her own eyes. I recall the early 1930s, and on, in England. The upper classes had a nasty social anti-Semitism (and anti-Americanism) which was based, probably, on envy brought on by their own reduced circumstances coming out of a punishing war. Going into the first world war many Jews around the world, were pro German. This had to do with family and cultural connections. And remember that Germany in 1913 was run by one of many European related royal families. (The war was a terrible accident, the result of cousins playing with armies like chessmen.)

Anyway, the same anti-Semitism existed in the US. This replenishment of the fortunes of titled English through marriage to wealthy American girls (some of whom were Jewish) made their anti-semitism and anti- Americanism a farce. Those of us who had to endure continuous insults didn’t have, at that time, the sense of irony that we now have, when we see Downton.

There was a Jewish aristocracy in England. There were many titled achievers, but they rarely intermarried. I recall going to the Synagogue in London with two Jewish Lords both dressed in top hat and tails, grey trousers and vest.

I believe this seemingly bizarre Downton Jewish connection is a continuation of an accepted literary “joke” found in novels and films, and nowadays no series would be complete without this platitude.

disqus_t30Q7fFuFB says:

Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey said that Mr Levinson was the second husband of Shirley McClaine and therefor was not Cora’s father. He just added his fortune to that of the first husband.

Elinor Katz says:

Did anyone but me notice on the piece about the history of Highclere Castle that the present Lady Fiona Canavan was wearing what looked to me to be a Star of David pendant?!!

Genugshoyn says:

The more important point in this post is that the show is an arrant apology for good-old feudal paternalism and we don’t want to tarnish its image with the unpleasantness of real historical social tensions beyond letting the young Catholic Irishman play billiards with Matthew (we are all related after all…..)

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Downton’s Missing Jews

The hit period-specific PBS drama glosses over a crucial detail of 1920s England: anti-Semitism

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