Jews in kilts

‘Jewish Glasgow’ tells the story of the extremely active community, but it will resonate with anyone who grew up self-imposed open ghettos.

Members of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and the Royal British Legion Glasgow Jewish branch at the annual Armistice Day parade to the Cenotaph in George Square. (photo credit: PR)
Members of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and the Royal British Legion Glasgow Jewish branch at the annual Armistice Day parade to the Cenotaph in George Square.
(photo credit: PR)
In the foreword to Jewish Glasgow: An Illustrated History, Prof. Bernard Wasserman writes: “Every Jewish Glaswegian will find fragments of his or her past in this book. The evocative photos, documents and text stir in me, as I am sure in other readers, memories of people, events and places.”
However, one doesn’t have to be a Glaswegian to appreciate this book. Jews don’t even have to be Scottish to find a sense of familiarity in the composition of the photographs, the architecture of the synagogues, the structure of the community, and the anecdotal information.
Anyone who grew up in the self-imposed open ghettos of London’s East End, New York’s Lower East Side or Melbourne’s Carlton will feel an instant sense of identification with the Gorbals, one of the key areas that the small but extremely active Jewish community of Glasgow called home.
Kenneth Collins, who wrote the text, cleverly adopted the “less is more” technique.
Instead of a long, dull academic study of Jewish Glasgow, he presents the reader with extended captions to photographs, short vignettes, and occasional longer background pieces that round out the illustrations, which include newspaper clippings, posters and maps. The slightly longer pieces are more in the nature of narrative to give the nostalgic Glaswegian reader a better understanding of how the Jewish community functioned through the institutions and businesses it established.
The book is not a continuum, but is divided into theme chapters that inter alia include religious life, Zionism, education, health and welfare, business and employment, leisure and culture, and wartime – giving some indication of the Glaswegian Jews who fought in World Wars I and II, as well as of artists and patrons of the arts who had some kind of a relationship with Jewish Glasgow.
The overall presentation is in the form of a scrapbook, beautifully put together by Jacqueline Speyer Friedman, who uses a variety of layout styles and yet creates a sense of uniformity in her design.
The common language among the early Jewish residents of Glasgow was Yiddish, and the book includes community notices and newspaper clippings in that language. Just as their American cousins across the sea began to incorporate English words into Yiddish texts, so did the Glaswegian Jewish community. For instance, the Glasgow Jewish Naturalization Society, which financially and otherwise helped members of the Jewish community to become naturalized British citizens, published a handbill in Yiddish calling on people to become naturalized and not to remain strangers in a strange land. In the title of the organization, the word “society” is transliterated into Yiddish instead of translated into one of several Yiddish options, such as “gesellschaft.”
Also like their American cousins (as well as some further afield), the Glasgow Jewish community’s organizations and institutions included a Workers’ Circle, where members addressed each other both orally and in writing as “Comrade.”
An example of the importance of Yiddish more than a century ago is apparent in a photograph of a double-frontage store, A. Links Fancy Linen Merchant, in which the large print sign on one side of the doorway is in Yiddish and the other in English.
Family portraits dating back to the late 19th century bear a strong resemblance to those found in any European Jewish community of the same period, with parents and children formally attired for the occasion.
In common with minority groups throughout the Diaspora, Glaswegian Jews placed great stock in education. In 1856, Asher Asher became the first Glasgowborn Jew to graduate from the University of Glasgow. He was also the first Jewish physician in Scotland. He later moved to London, where in addition to providing for the medical needs of the Jewish poor, he served as a physician to the Rothschilds.
Arguably the most famous of all Jewish Glaswegians was Anglo-Jewish journalist and author Chaim Bermant, who – though he was born in Poland and then moved with his family to Latvia – spent much of his youth in the Gorbals, studied at the Glasgow Yeshiva and graduated from the University of Glasgow. A prolific writer, he often incorporated Glasgow into both factual and fictional output.
Among other Glaswegian Jews who received prominence at home, in England, or beyond the British Isles were Glasgowborn South African chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; Sir Harold Montague Finniston, who was chief metallurgist at the Atomic Energy Authority, chairman of British Steel and chancellor of Stirling University; award-winning television producer Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who was the founding CEO of Britain’s Channel 4 and later general director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden; songwriter, lyricist, vocalist, pianist and executive producer Eric Woolfson; diplomat Neville Lamdan, who served in the British Foreign Office before joining Israel’s Foreign Ministry; and Lady Hazel Cosgrove, the first woman to be appointed a senator of the College of Justice.
Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog frequently refers to his grandfather Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, for whom he was named. Prior to becoming chief rabbi of Israel, the elder Herzog was chief rabbi of Ireland, but his father-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman, served for several years as community rabbi in the Gorbals. Hillman established the Glasgow Beit Din (rabbinical court) and the Glasgow Yeshiva before moving on to London, where he served as a dayan (judge) on the London Beit Din.
Following his retirement in 1934, he settled in Jerusalem.
Among the most famous of Glasgow’s Jewish artists was Estonian-born sculptor Benno Schotz, who settled in Glasgow as a young man and was head of sculpture at the Glasgow School for Arts for 23 years. Sir Isaac Wolfson, the Glasgowborn financier and philanthropist who gave enormous amounts to charity and contributed to numerous projects in Israel – including Heichal Shlomo, the former seat of the Chief Rabbinate – grew up in the Gorbals as one of 13 children of a Polish immigrant cabinet maker. Wolfson lived the latter part of his life in Israel and is buried in Rehovot.
Of course, not every Glaswegian Jew of note could be mentioned. One glaring omission is Jerusalem-based Bible teacher and commentator Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, who grew up in Glasgow – though there is a photograph of her father, Dayan Wolf Gottlieb, who was head of the Glasgow Beit Din, posing with the Duke of Edinburgh when the latter visited the Jewish Old Age Home in 1973.
Zionist endeavors became integral to the Glasgow Jewish community from 1891 onward, with the establishment of various Zionist organizations and fund-raising campaigns to support settlements in the Jewish homeland. One of the great Zionist activists in Glasgow was Misha Louvish, who was chairman of the Glasgow Poale Zion and who migrated to Israel in 1949.
There, he became chief editor at the Government Press Office, writing educational handbooks and contributing numerous articles to Israeli publications including The Jerusalem Post. He was also a deputy editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica.
Though relatively small (and still shrinking), with somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 Jews at its peak in the early 20th century, the Glasgow Jewish community was considered sufficiently important for Golda Meir, then labor minister, to visit in 1954 while on a major fund-raising mission.
Despite its size, the Glasgow Jewish community supported not only a Talmud Torah and a yeshiva, but also a Jewish day school, which still functions. Classes in Hebrew and religious studies were also part of the facilities of the different synagogues.
Produced by the Scottish Jewish Archives Center, conceived by Steven Kliner, researched by Harvey Kaplan, and printed in Israel by Ravgon Ltd., this is a delightfully engrossing volume – a coffee table item sure to spark conversation among Jews of all origins, because almost any Jew involved with his or her community will find themselves saying, while leafing through the pages, “Oh, we had that too.”
Except that in other parts of the Jewish Diaspora (with the possible exception of Ireland), we didn’t wear kilts.