Second Project Advisory Board Meeting & Edgar Astaire Lecture


Dr Kenneth Collins lecturing on ‘Poles and Jews in Wartime Edinburgh.’   Image reproduced courtesy of Harvey Kaplan, Scottish Jewish Archives Centre ©.

It’s hard to believe that more than half a year has elapsed since ‘Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces’ first got under way.   So much has been achieved – two oral history interviews, continued scoping of selected collections of the Scottish Jewish Archive Centre, a pilot digitisation project, and crystallisation of our research plans to name just a few of our many accomplishments.

The convening of the second six-monthly Project Advisory Board Meeting a few days ago therefore gave pause for reflection on our progress in relation to significant milestones.   A team of academics with expertise in digital humanities and historical research, archives and library professionals, and representatives from Jewish community organisations were in attendance at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre on Wednesday 30th March.  The remit of the Board is to meet biannually to critically appraise the project’s strategy, progress and outputs, and also to offer specific expertise on matters relating to their individual areas of knowledge.   They perform this role consistently and cohesively well, drawing upon their experience to offer fresh and constructive insights which help to resolve challenges and move the project forward.

After a preliminary update on our progress and publication plans, the focus of the meeting was very much upon the practicalities of digitisation: selection of sources, equipment purchase, funder requirements, open access, timeframes and ethical issues all received attention.   Much ground was covered, and we left eagerly anticipating the next phase of the project.  The meeting will convene again towards the end of this calendar year where the emphasis will be on knowledge exchange and impact.

After a very productive meeting, attendees were treated by Harvey Kaplan and Dr Kenneth Collins – Director and Chairman respectively of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre – to a tour of the Synagogue and Centre.   In the early evening, Kenneth Collins delivered an engaging lecture to an audience of academics, volunteers and members of the Jewish community.   Dr Collins – current Edgar Astaire Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Edinburgh – shared selected insights from his extensive research into Polish Jewish medical students and soldiers in Scotland.   Although the lecture’s title suggested an emphasis on Edinburgh –where a Polish School of Medicine was established in 1941 – consideration was given also to the role of Polish Jewish refugees in the provision of mental health services and psychiatric medicine in Dundee, Aberdeen, Dumfries and Glasgow.   Of especial interest was Dr Collins’ discussion of the extent to which Polish Jews in Scotland during wartime experienced anti-Semitism.   The talk captured the interest of community and academy alike, generating numerous questions.   A lively reception followed, where delicious kosher food was abundantly served, courtesy of Mark’s Deli in Giffnock, bringing a successful day to a relaxing close.

Visit to the Scottish Theatre Archive

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From left: Fiona Brodie, Paul Maloney, Howard Brodie, Mia Spiro and Deborah Butcher. Photo supplied courtesy of Fiona Brodie, Scottish Jewish Archives Centre ©
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One of a selection of 1950s theatre posters on display.  Image kindly supplied by Claire McKendrick, Scottish Theatre Archives©

On Tuesday 29th March, Mia Spiro and Deborah Butcher enjoyed fascinating lunchtime visit to the Scottish Theatre Archive (housed within Glasgow University Library), accompanied by Fiona and Howard Brodie from the Scottish Jewish Archive Centre.  First we were treated to a tour by Claire McKendrick, followed by a display in the Seminar Room.    Various sources were on show, including posters, programmes, a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, and hand-annotated scripts complete with by stage sketches and director’s notes.

Of particular interest are a selection of photos of stage scenes of Ansky’s classic supernatural tale of Jewish folklore ‘The Dybbuk’ – acting in an exaggerated style perhaps to engage an audience unversed in the Yiddish – are exhibited.    Alongside are two character sketches signed Bet Low:  the first of a distinctive middle-aged woman, her rugged facial features buried beneath a mass of curly hair and her stout frame concealed by traditional rustic costume;  the second of a tall, slender man with serious expression.  Both are vaguely familiar and generate much discussion, although their identities remain frustratingly elusive.

Howard’s father, Maxwell Brodie (1926-1998), was actor, stage manager and director with the Jewish Institute Players, the Avrom Greenbaum Players and the Unity Theatre, his involvement spanning half a century.   For Howard (who also performed with the Avrom Greenbaum Players) many of the names and faces appearing in cast lists and photos are also family friends.   Indeed Fiona credits some of the Players’ success to the fact they belonged to such a close-knit community – living, working, worshipping and socialising in close proximity – affording them ample opportunities to rehearse, share ideas and refine their craft.

Claire’s demonstration of the online catalogue – searchable by name, document, collection and event – equips us to independently discover materials relevant to our interests.  Key holdings include the papers and correspondence of actor and director Samm Hankin, and the articles and letters of the acclaimed actress Ida Schuster.  Avrom Greenbaum’s correspondence with individual playwrights (such as Sylvia Regan) promise to reveal something of his broader cultural impact, and, reciprocally, his own creative influences.   There are also various materials relating to the Glasgow Unity Theatre, with whom the Players temporarily amalgamated during the 1940s.  These mostly pre-1960 sources complement the extensive Avrom Greenbaum Players collection (as the Jewish Institute Players later restyled themselves) housed at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.

Later on we were joined by Dr Paul Maloney, Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast.   Paul has previously explored the history of the Scottish music hall.  He is now working upon cataloguing the Jewish Institute Players’ collection, assessing various aspects of their history including the influence of vaudeville, and popular variety theatre, on Scottish Jewish amateur dramatics.  All in all, this was a highly informative and enjoyable introduction to the Scottish Theatre Archive.