In 1988, I arranged a visit to Israel for the Maelgwyn Male Voice Choir. Twice winners of the Eisteddfod, this 200-strong group of men born into the Welsh musical tradition realized a lifelong dream, to visit the Holy Land.
Their trip coincided with the 40th anniversary of Israeli statehood and the lesser-known fact that it was the 400th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into Welsh, this latter event being remarkable in that it contributed significantly to the survival of the Welsh language.
Jews first came to Wales around the time when King Edward I embarked on an ambitious program of building castles. He established a large number of strategically placed fortresses in Wales to protect his interests. Jews were only permitted to undertake certain occupations, one of which was money- lending. Consequently it was the Jews who contributed to a large extent in financing Edward’s massive project.
This came to an abrupt end when Edward issued an edict expelling all the Jews from England and Wales in 1290. Between 4,000 and 16,000 of them had to leave, taking only what they could carry. They were never repaid for the loans they made to the king. Most of them went to Poland and could not return to England until Oliver Cromwell readmitted them in 1656.
Much is written about the connections between Wales and Israel. Geographically the same size, both have biblically named towns such as Bethel, Nazareth, Carmel, Hebron and Caesarea. So respected were these names that some of the Jewish itinerant peddlers in Wales in the 19th century changed their names to Isaac or Jacob in the belief that it would be good for business. In 1917 it was volunteers from some of these Welsh villages who marched with the 53rd Welsh Division to Palestine to liberate the population from Ottoman rule.
There are those in Wales who believe that they are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. This claim is backed by the fact that the languages use words in common – one example being the Welsh Wlpan and the Hebrew Ulpan, meaning centers for language teaching. Linguistic experts, however, are skeptical.
In 1926 Kibbutz Ramat David was established and named not, as most people assume, after King David of biblical fame, but rather for David Lloyd George, the first Welsh prime minister of Great Britain.
Lloyd George was a devout evangelical. In 1925 he told the Jewish Historical Society of England, “I was brought up in a school where I was taught far more history of the Jews than about my own land. I can tell you all the kings of Israel, but I doubt if I can name half a dozen of the kings of England or Wales.”
It was the Scot Arthur Balfour, another evangelical Christian, who, as foreign secretary in Lloyd George’s government, authored the Balfour Declaration of 1917, supporting the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. The efforts of these two dedicated men helped to lay the foundations for the future State of Israel.
The Maelgwyn tour in 1988 was eventful, not the least because so many of them shared the same family names – Jones, Hughes or Evans – and 24 of them were called Williams. You can imagine the chaos on their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Their tour began in the Galilee and continued to Jerusalem where I met them, and we continued together to Rehovot. There were five buses.
The choir asked me to teach them a Hebrew song to sing at their next concert. After a lot of thought I came up with the suggestion of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,
” which, having only three words, seemed a good choice. Each man wrote the words on his hand or arm, and we practiced enthusiastically during the journey.
Prior to the concert we met up in a restaurant. At one point one man started to sing a Welsh song, the melody was taken up by another and then another until the roof was raised by the sound of 200 Welshmen spontaneously singing. It was one of those occasions that are unforgettable.
The concert at Rehovot was a huge success, at the end of which I addressed the audience to announce that the choir had prepared a little surprise for them. The men then stood up and gave a vigorous rendition of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem
” that brought the house down. There was scarcely a dry eye in the audience. A few weeks later the choir accepted my invitation to sing at Israel’s 40th anniversary celebrations in London. By now they were like our extended family and once again they won over the audience with the power of their magnificent voices.
I have shivers when I recall it.
Their tour leader at the time was a very special man – Revd. Roger Roberts – now Lord Roberts of Llandudno.
I visited him recently at the House of Lords where he regaled me with his reminiscences of the trip. He had been given the responsibility of carrying an extremely heavy nativity scene, made of Welsh slate by craftsmen in North Wales. He was very happy when he handed it over to the minister of a church in Bethlehem and was relieved of his responsibility. Roger then received a medal from then-mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, which he carried back with great pride to his hometown.
He remembered another occasion when they were all in boats on the Sea of Galilee, singing as the sailed across the waters.
For 25 years I had not been in touch with the choir, but after talking to Roger I rang them and was delighted that several members remembered everything about their visit to Israel and were longing to go back again.
I have been invited to visit them in Llandudno. My dream is to try to arrange a second trip – to bring these very special people once again from The Land of Their Fathers to the Land of My Fathers. At this stage it is just another mountain for me to climb – but if I can succeed, what a wonderfully fitting end it would be to this story.
As they say, miracles take a little longer.
Ruth Corman lives in London and Jerusalem and is an art consultant and photographer. Her book Unexpected Israel will be published soon.