Royal Treatment

The last British monarch to define an era was King Edward VII, who died in 1910. His short stay on the throne was marked by a certain kind of late imperial style of high fashion and aristocratic dominance. For some reason, no member of the royal family since his time has become synonymous with the age. Perhaps after universal suffrage was passed in 1918, a more democratic nation no longer defined itself by its king.

Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned over the United Kingdom for over 70 years, died today at the age of 96. If any monarch since Edward deserves to have an age named after them, it is her, and yet the task would be near impossible. Her time spanned the Cold War, but also the post-Cold War. She had reigned for 5 years before Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union and hosted astronauts at Buckingham Palace. 15 prime ministers served under her, including 3 women, the last of whom she appointed two days before her death.

It is simply not possible to encapsulate the era of Elizabeth II. The United Kingdom shrank from an empire to a global power to secondary nation that has withdrawn from its commitment to Europe. So much happened while she was queen that it can’t all be neatly summarized into a (second) Elizabethan Age. She certainly navigated the ups and downs of contemporary British politics and society with grace and elegance.

More importantly, she understood her role as a symbol. Whatever personal opinions she may have held, Queen Elizabeth knew that the public was not interested in her as a person. Instead, she made a bargain that she would remain neutral and allow her subjects to fill her with their hopes and dreams. They in turn would love, adore, and support her. It was a high bar that other members of the royal family couldn’t match. Almost every scandal in her family over the years was the result of her relatives showing their humanity, for better and for worse.

Queen Elizabeth’s reign also marked the rise of the British Jewish community and the creation of the State of Israel. UK Jews maintain the long tradition of praying for the welfare of the monarch, which we in the US have changed to a prayer for the government. The outpouring of affection for the Queen after her passing stands in contrast to the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when the townsfolk ask the rabbi if there is a proper blessing for the ruler of Russia. “Yes”, he replies, “May God bless and keep the Tzar far away from us.” The Jews of Britain did not keep Elizabeth far away from them; they embraced her.

Few monarchs have witness as much change as Queen Elizabeth II. She was born into world of hidebound privilege but managed to modernize the institution no one expected her to inherit when she was a child. In the Jewish tradition we say yehi zichra livracha, “may her memory be a blessing”, but there is no doubt Queen Elizabeth’s name and memory will forever live as a blessing in the hearts of her subjects, Jewish or not.

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