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Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)

 

75 Years of Dee Street:
History of the Aberdeen Jewish Community
 

28 April 2020

Click here to watch Nathan Abrams' talk
 
75 Years of Dee Street – History of the Aberdeen Jewish Community

SCoJeC is delighted to be able to join the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Aberdeen Synagogue in Dee St by organising a series of three talks by authors with connections with the Scottish Community to help raise funds for the Aberdeen Synagogue Roof Appeal.

75 Years of Dee Street – History of the Aberdeen Jewish Community

The first speaker was Prof Nathan Abrams of Bangor University in Wales, whose talk, 75 years of Dee Street, was very fittingly about the history of the Aberdeen Jewish Community. He drew on stories and documents from current and former members of the community, reports in old newspapers, court reports, census documents and more; it was a fascinating evening. The ‘Zoom room’ was well-attended, with more than fifty people participating.

75 Years of Dee Street – History of the Aberdeen Jewish Community

Nathan himself has a personal interest in the building, as he lived in the flat above the synagogue while he was a lecturer at Aberdeen University earlier in his career. This prompted an interest in the history of the community that led to him writing his study of the small Jewish Communities in Scotland, Caledonian Jews: A Study of Seven Small Communities in Scotland. He also contributed a chapter to the more recent publication, 200 years of Scottish Jewry, that includes information about the Aberdeen community, which is the only one of the seven that still remains.

75 Years of Dee Street – History of the Aberdeen Jewish Community

Nathan said that the first Jews may have come to Aberdeen in the 14th century but this is not confirmed. Cecil Roth places the first recorded Jews in Aberdeen in 1665, when a ship manned by a crew speaking only Hebrew was sighted off Scotland! Later there are mentions of the third Earl of Aboyne marrying the daughter of Elias Levy in 1732, and of Jews coming to study because Scotland, unlike English universities, allowed Jews to study medicine. Sixteen Jewish students graduated from Marischal and Kings Colleges between 1739 and 1829, becoming the first Jews in the English speaking world to graduate in medicine.

By the time of the 1881 census there were several Jewish families living in Aberdeen, and in 1893 the new synagogue premises were inaugurated in two rented rooms at 34 Marischal Street. Many members of the congregation mentioned the ‘fishy smell’ that blew in from the harbour. The community had a succession of rabbis but none stayed long as the pay was poor. However, they did appear to have an abundance of kosher meat, and even sent some to London. The then Chief Rabbi visited from London in 1896, and a cemetery was secured in 1913.

75 Years of Dee Street – History of the Aberdeen Jewish Community

Between the wars the Jewish families became more bourgeois, and set up a Jewish Literary Society, a WIZO group, and Hebrew classes. Ernest Bromberg launched a dance hall and opened Aberdeen’s first cinema in 1936. As the community became wealthier and outgrew their rented rooms, the present building was bought and inaugurated in June 1945.  Later, it was converted to its current state, with a basement flat and an attic flat, the Synagogue on the ground floor, and Community Rooms on the first floor.

Many of the audience had personal connections with the Aberdeen Jewish community. Some remembered family members who had been members of the community many years ago: "My great-grandfather was a cobbler in Aberdeen. He repaired second hand shoes and then sold them." "My great-great-grandmother, Julia Levy, ran “The Aberdeen Fish(ing) Company” in Leith, Edinburgh."

Another particpant's father had led services in the synagogue many years earlier. One had lived in the flat above the synagogue when he was studying in Aberdeen in the 1960s, and a third remembered many Seder nights in the Aberdeen community when she had lived there over 40 years earlier.

Some people talked about newer arrivals, Israeli families coming to Aberdeen for the oil industry, or the universities. As the wheel turned, the children of many members began to leave the city, but we were delighted to have given so many of them an opportunity to revisit their memories of a unique and fascinating small Jewish community.

 
Click here to watch Nathan Abrams' talk
 
Growing up Jewish in Shetland
 
 
This was the first in our series of online 'talk to the author' events to raise money for the Aberdeen Synagogue Roof Fund. So far, SCoJeC is delighted to have raised £2828.80 (which an anonymous donor has generously agreed to double) towards the target of £15,000. There is still time to contribute –
click here if you would like to donate
and please indicate that your donation is for the Aberdeen Roof Fund.
 
We are grateful to the Netherlee and Clarkston Charitable Trust for their generous support of our event programme.

 

   
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Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation no. SC029438