‘Playing Deaf’: Jewish Women at the Medical Missions of East London, 1880–1920s
Organizations whose fundamentalist eschatology inspired them to attempt to convert Jews to Christianity had existed from early in the nineteenth century, but with the intensification of Jewish emigration to Britain in the 1880s dozens opened stations in East London. Historians today correctly continue to stress the insult and annoyance the missionaries represented to the struggling Jewish immigrants. This essay focuses on the specialized medical missions - at least a dozen, at times more - attached to the major East London missionary organizations, and designed to exchange good health care (for free) for a hearing of the 'Gospel truth'. These have received less attention from historians than have the general missions, though they proved extremely popular with poor Jews, so much so that many urged the Jewish Board of Guardians to provide rival dispensaries. This study thus places the medical missions within the extensive health care systems of the district. 'Playing Deaf' also seeks to position the medical missions within Jewish immigrant social and family life. Mission dispensaries were among the several Christian spaces that Jewish women would have to negotiate as they tried to organize work and family life in a state with an established Protestant church, so women's behaviour in mission spaces may exemplify other kinds of interactions with the Christian world. Jewish mothers used the missions' free doctors and nurses to stretch their household budgets, so the majority of patients were women and children - yet women as a group were less susceptible to conversionist rhetoric than men, especially single men. A major primary source for this study is the missionary press, with its extensive coverage of the largest of the medical missions, the Mildmay Medical Mission to the Jews. Mildmay's reports depict encounters inside the medical missions and provide insight into the subjective lives of the mission doctors, whose efforts to sustain their optimism despite nearly constant failure are palpable in their reports over three decades.
Full Text: PDF HTML