North by 'north-feast'

A precedent to the modern-day phenomenon of finding seders in remote corners of the globe.

April 18, 2006 10:57
4 minute read.
North by 'north-feast'

Shetlands 298.88. (photo credit: )


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Many Jews with an adventurous spirit nowadays jet off to far-flung corners of the world at Pessah, confident of being able to celebrate the traditional recollection of the Egyptian exodus. In what would once have been considered unlikely places, such as Bangkok and Katmandu, thousands now routinely attend traditional Seders. But the expectation of being able to find a Seder table in remote locations is a modernday phenomenon and leads me to reflect upon the amazing story of the Greenwald family of the Shetland Islands. There, tucked away in the northern-most reaches of Scotland on a latitude which is level with the southern tip of Greenland, the only Jewish woman in the area, Jean Greenwald, arranged Seders for over 300 Jewish military personnel stationed in the vicinity during World War II. Her story, and that of her husband Harry, an adventurous immigrant from Belarus who fled the Cossacks and the Czarist army to settle in the Shetlands in 1918, are recalled in a book recently published by Jean's daughter Ethel Hofman: Mackerel at Midnight. Hofman, a syndicated food journalist and cookbook author living in the US, describes her childhood, one which can be termed a unique Jewish experience. THE TALE of Harry Greenwald, who opened a shop on the main street of Lerwick, the capital town of the islands, is fascinating. Arriving with his father and two brothers by ship from the Scottish mainland, this gutsy young man from a Russian shtetl was able to develop a successful jewelry business which eventually became a department store called "Greenwalds." While his father and brothers were unable to cope with the isolation and returned to Glasgow's Jewish community, Harry remained in the Shetlands. His ability to make friends among the local fisherman and farmers enabled his business to grow and succeed. In 1935 he sought a Jewish bride and, using the services of a Glasgow matchmaker, was able to meet a young woman from the Gorbals, the dismal tenements of Glasgow. Not knowing what awaited her, but wanting to leave the Gorbals, Jean Segal agreed to marry the Shetland businessman and make a Jewish home in the isolated islands. While there are more than 100 Shetland Islands, only 17 are inhabited. Closer to the Arctic Circle than to London, it's easier and quicker to get there from Norway than from the UK capital. Norsemen settled the islands in the eighth century and many of the city and village names are of Norse origin. Part of Scotland since the 15th century, the Viking and Norse influence remains strong. Although English is the official language, the local dialect that combines Scots and ancient Norse is still spoken. Determined to retain her tradition and customs, Jean set about establishing a Jewish home in this Christian outpost. A creative and talented cook, she used local ingredients to produce traditional Ashkenazi dishes which were very popular with neighbors, friends and her delighted family. She won awards at cooking competitions of the Scottish Women's Rural Institute (SWRI) and many of her prize-winning recipes are included in the book. WHEN WORLD War II broke out and Norway came under German occupation, the Shetlands became an important Allied navy base. Lerwick's natural harbor became a strategic stronghold for naval operations and, between 1939 and 1945, thousands of troops - including more than 300 Jewish men and women - were based throughout the islands. The only Jewish woman resident on the islands at the time, Jean was determined that these Jewish soldiers who were so far from home would enjoy a traditional Pessah Seder. She mounted a massive operation which included ordering the necessary items such as matzot, matza meal and kosher wine from Glasgow. Since all supplies arrived via a 14-hour ship's journey, which only sailed when the often-rough seas permitted, the planning had to take place well in advance. The intrepid Jean successfully convinced Glasgow Jewish merchants to donate the many items required for the Shetlands soldiers' Seders. She used her diplomatic skills to obtain the permission of the commanding officer of the military forces on the islands to use one of the navy buildings and some kitchens for the preparation and holding of the Seders. He was so impressed by her "mission" that he placed at her disposal a military truck and driver as well as a staff of cooks to assist in the preparation. Drafting her many Christian friends as well, Jean supervised the preparation of the Seder meal, which included chicken soup with kneidlach, chopped herring and gefilte fish, roast chicken, kugels, sponge cake and dried fruit compotes. Since fish was plentiful on the islands, Jean used the local haddock and hake for the gefilte fish, which was fried as is traditional in Scotland. Visionary, and with just a hint of hutzpa, this amazing woman arranged for the chief rabbi of Great Britain to come to the Shetlands to conduct the wartime Seders for the soldiers. After the war, many soldiers returned to the Shetlands with their families to visit the Greenwald family and to thank them for "the home away from home" they had enjoyed in this remote and isolated place. The writer, an attorney, is director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project.

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