Jewish Culture in Wales

Jewish Culture in Wales Today

by Barbara Michaels, Editor of Bimah ‘The Platform of Welsh Jewry’

The contribution made by the Jewish community in Wales to all branches of the arts was first in evidence in the early part of the eighteenth century, with the establishment of synagogues in Swansea, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd and Tredegar. Since then, it has grown in strength, embracing luminaries such as writers Ursula Henriques, whose definitive The Jews of South Wales was published in 1993, Leonard Mars for books and academic articles on the Jews in Wales, writer, radio presenter and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson, novelist Bernice Rubens, TV presenter Lucy Owen, poet Dannie Abse, thespians such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Bennett Arron, and many others.

Nevertheless, despite the publication of books such as The Chosen People: Wales and the Jews, edited by Grahame Davies, there is still a lack of knowledge as to how these levels were ascertained. That in itself was one of the major benefits of the Jewish Way of Life Exhibition which took place earlier this year at the Senedd. Organised by the South Wales Jewish Representative Council, the Exhibition featured displays and images of contemporary Jewish life in Wales with its festivals and traditions. Authentic artefacts dating back to earlier days were among the exhibits, as well as photographs, some of the older ones being sepia, with many in black and white, as well as more modern ones in colour. Of particular interest was a pen and ink drawing by Welsh artist Olwen Hughes of the synagogue in Cathedral Rd, Cardiff. Opened in 1897, the synagogue is no longer there (it was converted to offices after its sale in 1987) but the frontage remains and can be seen to this day. The picture is one of eighteen lithographs of Welsh synagogues by Hughes, a Welsh artist more generally known for her depiction of churches, small Welsh towns and villages, and is part of a series of drawings and paintings which includes a lithograph of the now disused synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil.

The 1999 BAFTA-awarded Welsh film Solomon and Gaenor, with dialogue mainly in English but including both Welsh and Yiddish, a love story between a young Orthodox Jew in the South Wales Valleys and a young Gentile girl, emphasised cultural differences rather than similarities, which some might view as a missed opportunity. However, fourteen years on, it must be obvious to those interested that the similarities between the two cultures far outweigh the differences.

The connection is particularly strong in the world of art. Two years ago, in 2012, the art exhibition Blue Line was exhibited at the Art Central Gallery in Barry as part of the Vale of Glamorgan’s commemoration of the Holocaust. The title of the exhibition, which had been previously exhibited across southern Poland, refers to the blue thread in the tallit, a white silk shawl worn by Jewish men in synagogue and representing the Jewish tailors in the death camps who contrived to sew it into garments worn by prison guards. Sculptures and installations by Welsh artist Nicola Tucker were shown together with works by Polish artist Marciej Hoffman. The same year saw a special showing in Swansea of the Jewish Refugees in South Wales 1933-1945 Exhibition, depicting the stories of industrialists, artists and children who came to Wales as refugees from Nazi Germany. Part of the exhibition was dedicated to the Kindertransport, in which some 10,000 children were helped to escape from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of war in 1939. After their arrival in reception camps on the east coast of England, the children were placed in foster homes, many of them in South Wales. Last year the Cardiff Reform Synagogue published Hineni: Life Portraits from a Jewish Community, a book with photographs and stories of some of its members, several of whose parents or grandparents came to Wales in this manner.

Musically, the connection between Welsh and Jewish culture is strong, with klezmer music becoming increasingly popular. Originating in Eastern Europe, klezmer, with its infectious rhythms and uplifting emotional appeal, has, according to Matt Watson whose band, the Klezmonauts is based in Llanidloes, much in common with Welsh traditional music. Formed in 2005, and consisting of Matt on guitar, Tom Deakin on clarinet and David Eger on mandolin, the group are increasingly in demand for gigs in mid Wales and elsewhere. Watson, who attributes the music’s popularity to its ability to ‘set the feet tapping with tunes that combine the familiar with a touch of Middle Eastern exoticism’, explains that the similarity is due in part to both being in D minor or similar mode, while some klezmer has the feel of a Welsh reel. Favourite tunes include the popular and well known ‘Hava Nagila’,while another, titled in Yiddish ‘A Nakht in Gan Eden’ (Night in the Garden of Eden) is a personal favourite, together with a Hora (National dance) titled in Yiddish ‘Beym Rebn in Palestina’, meaning in translation ‘At the Rabbi’s House in Palestine.’

In the Cardiff area, the eight-piece Klezmer Kollectiv has added cello, saxophone and cajon (giving a percussion element) to clarinet, accordion, bass and guitar, while South Wales duo Fiddlebox (Helen Adam and George Whitfield) claim to have invented an extension of the style which they call Klezreig – a meld of klezmer and cymreig – and typified in a version of the traditional song Machynlleth, improvised by Helen, who is part Lithuanian Jewish, and guitarist Tony Corden.

On the classical music scene, it is interesting to note that Welsh National Opera’s 2014 summer season, billed under the umbrella of Faith as the theme, commenced with Arnold Schoenberg’s seldom performed Moses und Aron, based on the Old Testament and with special relevance for Jewish audiences, and continued with Verdi’s Nabucco, with the charismatic and musically familiar Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). The autumn season includes a new production of Rossini’s Moses in Egypt. What is more, Wales’ highly esteemed bass baritone Bryn Terfel is to play the part of Tevye, the philosophical Jewish milkman living under threat from the Russian authorities, in a production of Fiddler on the Roof in Hampshire next summer.

No article on the mores of Jewish/Welsh culture in the 21st century can be complete without mention of the progression in interfaith relationships within Wales. Immense strides have been made, due in no small part to the CCJ – Council of Christians and Jews – and the interfaith movement which embraces the Jewish and Muslim communities. The latter is exemplified by a service organised by the South Shropshire Interfaith Forum eighteen months ago, at which the Imam of a mosque gave a presentation on the Holocaust and the Jewish Mayor of Montgomery in Powys gave a presentation relating to the attempted genocide of the Bosnian Muslims; a genocide which culminated in the Srebrenica massacre.

To end on a lighter note – in 2006, Welsh professional footballer, left-back Joe Jacobson, who was born in Cardiff, became the first British Jew to play professional football in more than 25 years!