The Jewish Chronicle, founded in 1841, is the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world. As its historian, David Cesarani, has noted, the paper has consistently provided “a ‘public sphere’ in which the Jews of Britain could interact, define and share a set of common concerns,” and in so doing has profoundly shaped British Jewish identity.1 In 1967 the paper’s youth column published an article on the acceptability of mini-skirts in the synagogue in which the author, Rima Roland, criticized “the way they are worn—or rather flaunted—around the gallery” as “little different from going in a bathing-suit or underwear, particularly if a mini-sweater is worn on top”:
Seldom does one see a mini-skirted girl take a prayer book in her hand, and yet it is invariably these girls who walk slowly and deliberately down the steps to, of all places, the front row of the gallery. Do they do this in the belief that they look like mannequins? Or do they think they are giving the men a treat?
For Roland, this attempt to attract male attention amounted to a desecration of the synagogue for overtly sexual purposes.2 The article prompted a flood of letters to the paper, of which nine were published in the column a fortnight later, comprising the entirety of that week’s reporting on youth issues. Many teenagers, such as Ms. A. Kat, felt that drawing young people into synagogues at all was worth celebrating, irrespective of their courtship-based motives: “so we mini-skirted girls go to synagogue to show off our thighs! Does it really matter what we go to synagogue in so long as we are there to say our prayers?”3 Kat’s views were also supported by a number of adults, including Rae Grantham, who wrote that Roland’s views were “further indicative of Orthodox Jewry’s great and centuries-old mistake in emphasising that there is an insoluble conflict between religion and sex.”4 Others were more supportive of Roland’s views, such as the anonymous twenty-year-old woman who complained that “every Yomtov our shool [sic] is turned into a fashion parade,” before expanding her critique of Jewish sexuality and materialism to include the adults of the community in addition to young people.5
Roland’s account, and the response to it, illustrates many of the trends that would characterize the way in which the sexual revolution was portrayed [End Page 137] within the Jewish Chronicle. It placed young people at the heart of problem of changing moral standards, highlighted the way in which these changes were resulting in a drift from a true engagement with Judaism, and by extension Jewishness, and placed the blame for this on Jewish women. Yet it also reveals that there was a considerable degree of dissent regarding this interpretation of the sexual revolution, and of the severity of the social and cultural changes underway within the community. Indeed, the correspondence over Roland’s article reveals not only the substantial cross-currents within and between the generations, but also the way in which the Jewish Chronicle, specifically its youth column, became a site in which youths and adults met to debate the Jewish implications of the sexual revolution and specifically Jewish standards of permissible behavior. In these ways, the debate played out within the Jewish Chronicle was representative of the differing levels of engagement with the sexual revolution present in wider non-Jewish society.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, British society underwent a series of liberalizing reforms of accepted social and cultural practice, evolving into what was quickly termed a “permissive society” in which accepted moral standards were gradually, though not completely, altered.6 The beginning of the permissive moment can be traced back at least to the late 1950s, with the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 that provided the defense of “literary merit” against charges of publishing pornographic material.7 Yet it was not until the accession of a Labour government in 1964 that the “permissive society” proper began to emerge. Between 1965 and 1970, the party introduced a range of measures whose aim was to liberalize British...