SCoJeC's latest event was hosted by the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, and featured some of the stories our Projects and Outreach Manager Fiona Frank had been told when she was researching her book, Candles, Conversions and Class: five generations of a Scottish Jewish family, which was published by the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre (SJAC) earlier this year. Fiona and Howard Brodie from the SJAC also brought a display about the history of the community, and SCoJeC provided a kosher buffet for the occasion.
Fiona explained that when she set out to study Scottish Jewish identity through oral history, she realised that three of her first interviewees happened to be descendants of the nine children of Rabbi Zvi David Hoppenstein and his wife Sophia, who had come to Scotland in the 1880s. That led her to try to track down all the members of this extended family and explore their thoughts and feelings about their Scottish and Jewish identity. Three cousins had ‘married out’ and were no longer in touch with the rest of the family, but Fiona managed to find people in every branch of the family, across the UK and as far as Cape Town.
Some of the stories Fiona was told as part of her research were particularly poignant. One of Zvi David and Sophia’s grandsons married a non-Jewish doctor but didn’t tell his parents. Nor did he tell his children about their Jewish heritage or that they had grandparents in Scotland, and they only found out when he fell ill and their mother thought his parents should be told he didn’t have long to live. The family travelled from Leicester, but by then the grandmother was housebound in a fourth floor tenement flat, and the son was in a wheelchair, so all they could do was wave to each other.
Another third generation son also ‘married out’, but his daughter made the choice, aged about 14, that she had more affinity with her Jewish side than her Christian side. She chose to marry a Jewish man, and converted back to Judaism so that her daughter would be considered Jewish.
Many of the family talked about the importance of their Jewish life, about food, about education, about work, and about their experiences of antisemitism.
Fiona talked about the questions she asked in order to get people to talk to her, and discussed the reasons behind the three-part title Candles, Conversions and Class. Everyone in the audience was able to make connections with their own experiences and their own families, and the discussion could have gone on for much longer than the time we had available.
Several of the audience had attended previous SCoJeC events, but many hadn’t come across Jewish people or the Jewish community before. They all enjoyed the SCoJeC trademark smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, and were very interested to see the panels produced by SCoJeC and the Jewish Archives Centre about the history of Jewish immigration to Scotland, and the SJAC book display.
“Engrossing and engaging” said one participant. “I loved having the family tree in front of me when hearing the stories” said another. And another told us that the event was “Really engaging – thank you for the stories and the background!”
The event was part of the national “Writing: Making Your Mark” exhibition which started at the British Library and is running in twenty libraries around the UK.