‘Narrative Spaces’ Colloquium at Glasgow University

On Sunday April 23rd and Monday 24th  we were delighted to host a project colloquium, allowing us the chance to set some of the research themes and questions raised so far within a wider cultural and historical scholarly context. The colloquium, entitled Narrative Spaces in Scottish Jewish Culture: A Comparative Perspective, took place at Glasgow University and proved to be a stimulating and thought-provoking couple of days. Seven two-paper sessions covered an impressive range, usefully extending the original ‘Scottish’ brief to other non-English Jewish identities: refugee domestic service; Irish sectarianism and antisemitism; Kindertransport narratives; archival questions; the Polish-born painter Joseph Herman; the Glasgow Jewish Institute Players; Welsh Jewish and Irish Jewish writing; Yorkshire Zionist industrialists; Scottish Zionism and the implications of Aliyah; Jewish film from Wales; Glasgow’s 1951 Jewish Arts Festival; refugee stories from Garnethill; and the changing landscape of Welsh synagogues. Each speaker had the chance to offer their reflections (often in some depth) upon connections and contrasts between their own paper and that of their panel partner’s, before discussion was opened up to the floor. Given that the meeting included scholars with backgrounds in history, cultural studies, Jewish studies, creative writing, theatre studies, languages and literature, the animated exchanges which took up the final third of each panel session were notable for their breadth of perspective and expertise. Nevertheless, there was also an encouraging amount of interdisciplinary connection, which surely bodes well for future lines of enquiry.

Joseph Herman, ‘Refugees’ (1941)

Whilst many of the papers explored a particular aspect of Scottish, Welsh or Irish Jewish culture or cultural production, many also took care to locate themselves within a wider frame of Jewish identity/identities and national narrative discourses. Paul Maloney and Adrienne Scullion, for example, showed how Avrom Greenbaum and the Jewish Institute Players manipulated elements of both Scottish and Jewish cultural vernacular in order to articulate and question a certain version of diasporic consciousness, one particular to the historical conditions of pre-war Jewish Glasgow. Ruth Gilbert analysed the ways in which Irish Jewish writers have used Jewishness as a means of disrupting and problematising narratives of Irishness, whilst at the same time often placing these processes within more conventional literary structures. Phyllis Lassner eloquently explored the restless and complex imagery of Joseph Herman’s refugee depictions, uncovering layers of unresolved meanings which address the experience of wartime refugee identity specifically, and the state of diaspora more generally. And Gavin Schaffer probed the ambiguities of Scottish Jews’ relationship to Israel, unpacking the ambiguous meanings and historical changes underpinning British financial and ideological support, whilst simultaneously critically examining the relatively small numbers of Scotland’s citizens who actually choose to emigrate there.

These are just a few of the fascinating discussions which took place. The project team are looking into the possibility of an edited collection of some of this work, so watch this space…

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