Jews, by Scot

Exploring identity, belonging and the future of Scottish Jewry.

Religious customs are part and parcel of everyday life for Scottish Jews (photo credit: JUDAH PASSOW)
Religious customs are part and parcel of everyday life for Scottish Jews
(photo credit: JUDAH PASSOW)
When Judah Passow embarked on a quest to document Scottish Jewry, he thought he was about to capture the last embers of a dying community. In the event – happily – he got a lot more than he’d bargained for, and came away with a very different and much more positive viewpoint.
That sunny bottom line is pretty clear from the 80 or so monochrome prints that currently adorn the Chopin Entrance and Rebecca Crown lobbies of the Jerusalem Theater as “Scots Jews – Identity, Belonging and the Future,” an exhibition that will run through March 18.
Jewish and Scottish hertiage meet in music / JUDAH PASSOW Jewish and Scottish hertiage meet in music / JUDAH PASSOW
TODAY, PASSOW is London-based, but, in fact, he was born in this country and left for the States with his Zionist American parents, both of whom had served in the pre-state Hagana, at the age of five. He returned, after graduating from college, to do his army service, stayed on for a number of years and landed his first job, as a photographer with The Jerusalem Post, in the 1970s.
He benefited from some quality tutelage.
“I was hired by [late Israel Prize laureate] David Rubinger,” says Passow. “He was the picture editor at The Jerusalem Post at the time.”
With his pioneering parents, and despite having lived most of his life outside Israel, Passow feels a strong bond with this country.
“My story is intimately wrapped up with the fashioning by hand of the State of Israel by that founding generation. My father was [first president of Israel Chaim] Weizmann’s assistant.
He was the foreign affairs director of the Weizmann Institute.”
After several years at the Post, Passow says, he took “the next logical professional steps” and relocated to London. Being familiar with this part of the world, and as a fluent Hebrew-speaker, he often found himself assigned to the Middle East, including to Lebanon, by such leading British papers as the Observer and the Daily Telegraph, with forays to such places as Vietnam, Bosnia and Gambia.
BUT THE subject of the Jerusalem Theater exhibition is of a very different ilk.
“The Scottish project was actually a spin-off from the project I had been working on immediately beforehand, which was called ‘No Place Like Home.’ I spent two years traveling all around the British Isles working out what it meant to be British and Jewish at the start of the 21st century,” Passow explains.
That peripatetic assignment produced an exhibition that opened at the Jewish Museum in London. Michael Mail, a Jewish Glaswegian businessman, attended the event and, suitably impressed, approach Passow and asked him if he would be interesting in documenting the Scottish Jewish community.
“That’s where the idea for this project came from,” Passow notes. “Michael Mail asked me whether I would be willing to work inside the community, making it specific to Scotland.”
Passow’s original purview was to make sure that future generations would be aware that there had once been a thriving Jewish community in Scotland. “Michael wanted to create a living document to record the history of Scotland’s Jewish community at this time, for posterity, because he was of the view that this was a community which was slowly disappearing. He wanted to create a permanent record of what was left.”
Passow was suitably enthused by the idea and soon traveled northward, crisscrossing the length and breadth of Scotland, in search of Jews wherever they may be. There was probably not a Jewish nook or cranny of Scotland that Passow did not visit with his trusty cameras.
“I went all over,” he recalls, and he really did go everywhere in search of his coreligionists from north of the border.
“I went to the Shetland Islands,” he says, referring to the archipelago that lies to the north of Scotland.
If he was looking to attend a communal synagogue service, he would have been disappointed. There aren’t enough Jews there to form a minyan.
“There are only four Jews in the Shetlands,” Passow notes. And even those four don’t manage to get together to generate some Jewish camaraderie.
“The Shetlands are really rugged and very spaced out,” he explains. “You don’t just get into your car and drive over to see someone.”
Even so, Passow managed to snap a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony on the island of Yell, which features in the exhibition. “The northernmost Jew in the British Isles lives on Yell. She is the NHS [National Health Service] practice nurse. She is a single mother and keeps Shabbat, and bakes her own halla. There is nowhere for her to buy a halla. The nearest halla to buy is 400 miles [644 km.] away in Edinburgh. She hangs on to her Jewishness tenaciously.”
That was something of an eye-opener for Passow.
Scottish Jews / JUDAH PASSOW Scottish Jews / JUDAH PASSOW
His original remit had been to capture some images that would remind future generations that there was once a Jewish community in Scotland. But he was gradually getting the idea that, perhaps, rumors of the community’s slow death were premature, and that, in fact, he was encountering a remarkable sector of world Jewry.
Considering the Yell nurse’s drive to sustain her Jewishness and to ensure her son imbibed Jewish culture, it is a little surprising she distanced herself from the main centers of the community. But Passow says her unwavering determination to cling to her religious heritage is symptomatic of the entire Scotland community.
“Aside from the main centers of Glasgow and Edinburgh, or even Dundee and Inverness, where you have proper communities, in the rest of the towns and villages, and on the islands, that make up Scotland, you are talking about a kind of Jew whose identity is selfmade and self-defined,” says Passow. “These are people who cling on to their Jewish identity with a self-driven tenacity. There’s no group therapy here. There’s no minyan. There’s no country club. In some of these places, you can’t get together with other Jews and depend on that warmth, that communal feeling, to keep your identity together. They are like pioneers. They are holding on to their Jewish identity as individuals.”
THAT IS palpably conveyed in Passow’s deliciously evocative black-and-white prints at the Jerusalem Theater, which account for around two-thirds of the pictures reproduced in the Scots Jews – Identity, Belonging and the Future book published around three years ago. There are shots that feature individuals, and others that portray the spirit of vibrant community life.
One photograph shows an elderly man in a tallit facing away from a sign that reads “Keep in Touch. Visit our Website. It’s All There.”
That could be construed as an indication that Mail was actually right. Here is a Jew who, presumably, is not entirely au fait with the wonders of contemporary technological communication means and, thus, does not have many options with regard to keeping in touch with his coreligionists.
Then again, I could be grabbing the wrong end of the stick.
“Look at the juxtaposition there,” Passow is quick to clarify.
“You’ve got this old gentleman in his tallit. Obviously, he represents one particular end of the age spectrum in the community.
The other half of that picture is, sort of, rock on to the synagogue’s website. The synagogue lives in cyberspace. This is the future. This synagogue has one foot in the present and one foot in the future.”
Passow also learned that Scottish Jews are, by and large, just that – proud to be Scottish and Jewish. There are photos of male Jewish Scots in kilts, including one of a kilt maker.
But if I was hoping to get some insight into one of the eternal enigmas of life, I was to be disappointed. In one delectable action photo, Passow caught a kilt-clad groom being tossed in the air. While the frame catches him showing quite a bit of skin, there is no clue as to what a Scotsman, even a Jewish one, wears under his kilt, if anything at all.
“I didn’t get close enough to check,” Passow laughs.
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