Scottish Council of Jewish Communites
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities

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Scottish Council of Jewish Communities
Representing, connecting, and supporting Jewish people in Scotland

Jewish Roots in the Northern Isles

18 August 2019

More than 100 people joined SCoJeC at our three events in Shetland and Orkney about family and memory. Among them were some Jewish people living on the islands or visiting and some local people with Jewish heritage or an interest in investigating their family history. 

Jewish Roots in the Northern Isles

The speakers at the events were SCoJeC’s own Fiona Frank, and author Ethel Hofman, whose book, Mackerel at Midnight: growing up Jewish on a remote Scottish island, is about her own childhood in Shetland, which she left for Glasgow and then America in the 1960s. In the discussions after the talks, members of the audience shared their own family stories, and as a result, at each of the talks we met Jewish people who had no previous contact with the Jewish community.

At the first meeting, in the Old Library in Lerwick on Shetland, more than 25 people filled one of the meeting rooms to hear Fiona share some of the stories she was told when researching her book Candles, Conversions and Class: Five Generations of a Scottish Jewish Family, about the descendents of Rev Zvi David and Sophia Hoppenstein, who arrived in Edinburgh from Poland in the 1880s fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in Russia. The following day, Ethel spoke to a crowd of around 70 about growing up Jewish in Shetland. Her talk was also live-streamed, and can be watched here.

Then at the final event of the short tour, twelve people came to the Orkney Library in Kirkwall to hear Fiona talking about her book and to share their own family stories. Two Jewish families who live on the island met for the first time despite their children attending the same school, and are already talking about having a joint Passover seder meal, and two other participants talked about having Jewish grandparents or great-grandparents.

Jewish Roots in the Northern Isles

Fiona spoke about how her interest in the links between present-day immigrants and the first generation of Jewish immigrants 100 years ago had led her almost by accident to track down all the living descendants of the Rev Zvi David and Sophia Hoppenstein throughout Scotland, England, and as far as Cape Town, as part of her PhD research at the Scottish Oral History Centre. Although her main interest was to explore her interviewees’ sense of Jewish and Scottish identity, she also collected many fascinating family tales of Jewish migration and Jewish life over the last 100 years.

One participant commented that the topic of Fiona’s PhD sounded lots of fun compared with other rather dry PhD topics. Another said that it was so interesting to hear all the different stories from members of the family Fiona had interviewed. She said “People talk about ‘The Jews’ but they’re all different people with different lives: it’s just fascinating.“

Ethel and her brother Roy Greenwald were at Fiona’s talk in Shetland, and shared their own memories of growing up Jewish on Shetland with the other participants. Their father was from Russia, and told Roy that he had wanted to go to America, not Scotland, but the captain of the ship told him that they had arrived in the USA and put him off the boat at Greenock. This was a story several members of the Hoppenstein family had also told, and was very common in the Jewish community in Scotland and elsewhere. Roy and Ethel talked about the importance of food in Judaism – they had strong memories of their mother ordering salami and rye bread to be sent up from Glasgow – and she loved to go back to Glasgow to attend synagogue on the high holy days.

Jewish Roots in the Northern Isles

For Ethel’s talk, the library staff had to push the bookshelves aside in the main library area and find extra chairs to squeeze everyone in. Ethel shared her memories of a happy, idyllic, carefree childhood, and showed photos of island life before the war. She told us about her grandfather bringing his three sons to Shetland to look for a way to make a living. Starting as peddlers, they founded the shop, Greenwald’s, which was said to have sold everything “from condoms to candy”, but in the end all of them left except her father. He loved the island and decided to stay, but since he wanted a Jewish wife and wasn’t about to find one on Shetland, he had to look for someone in Glasgow. Ethel told us that the first thing her mother had said when she got off the boat was “why did you bring me to such a god-forsaken place” – but she stayed on Shetland for another sixty years, played a full part in Island life, and did as well as she could with her Judaism in a remote island, bringing up Ethel and her brothers with a strong sense of the Jewish religion and way of life, lighting candles every Friday night, and inviting their neighbours round to celebrate the Jewish festivals. During the war, Ethel’s mother would put on a Passover supper each year for the Jewish servicemen and women billeted on Shetland. She brought together a group of around ten friends who would cook all the traditional dishes: chicken soup, matza balls and kugel, and they took over the army kitchen, cooking for around 300 people each year!    

One lady particularly loved the description of Passover. Her late husband was Jewish, and she had always enjoyed the Passover seder meal; she could imagine these young men and women far from home who would otherwise have missed that very important occasion, and felt it was wonderful that Ethel’s mother had made it happen. She said that she had found being at the talks very emotional, and that it was fascinating that Jewish people had withstood two thousand years of persecution but had still maintained the traditions, the culture and the religion, despite being so few.    

There were some of Ethel’s old schoolfriends among the audience, who swapped stories and memories at the end of the talk. One remembered people who had no money being able to get the things they needed by bartering – her father, who was a fisherman was left buckets of vegetables in return for fish.

Jewish Roots in the Northern Isles

Several of the participants were moved to share their own family stories. One told us that she had been named after a great-aunt who had been born in Scotland when the family had stopped off on their way to America – one family who did actually arrive at their desired destination! Another had recently found out that she is Jewish: their mother had been abandoned as a baby during the war by her Jewish mother who had never told anyone in her family, but now she had managed to trace her mother’s birth family and had met cousins in the USA and in Israel.

Ethel herself, having been the only Jewish family on the island for many years, was very surprised to meet other people with Jewish heritage on Shetland. She thanked SCoJeC, saying “I had no idea such Jewish connections existed in Shetland. As the only Jewish family in the second half of the 20th century, we were isolated from a Jewish community not only in miles but culturally. I grew up in a purely Christian environment – respected but nonetheless where no one who could or would admit to any Jewish connection. So for me, the shared stories were enlightening and heartening. My congratulations to SCoJeC – and my thanks for allowing me to share my experiences growing up respected in a remote Christian community.”

Marghie West, Adult Services librarian at Shetland Library, said: "It was a real delight to have both of your events at the library. It was wonderful to be able to highlight our Scottish and Shetland Jewish family heritage. I think people left the events thinking about their roots and their heritage. I have always believed that we are defined by the stories we tell and that it is important to share the stories which unite us."


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