Digging through the archive

Having dispatched the book manuscript on Salis Daiches for external review, I am now turning my research attention fully to the Dorrith Sim Collection (DMSC). Already at the end of December I begun systematically to transcribe parts of this collection. This is, of course, to assist me in understanding the archive and making connections between its different parts, and the wider context in which the collection acquires meaning. To this end, I am feeding my transcriptions into a database, so I can search for keywords, annotate the documents and establish networks of connections. I developed a workflow from the photograph of document via a spreadsheet with a short description to an rtf file with the full text of the photograph. The spreadsheet will assist the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre (SJAC) in fully cataloguing the DMSC.

Transcription strikes me as a meditative process. Alone with the text, the words on the page give rise to my imagination about the production of these documents, their assembly, storage, care, and eventual deposit in the SJAC, and me and others accessing them. The documents I transcribed at the end of last week were lists of household items and valuables of Alma and Julius Oppenheim, Dorrith’s grandparents, assembled in late 1938 – early 1939 in preparation for their emigration to Canada. Thus a household is laid bare, every item inventarised as it is packed into boxes for shipping, or is taken to the pawnbroker to raise funds for the passage and setting up a new existence on the other side of the Atlantic. There is an intimacy to the lists: I learn all the details of tableware and linen accumulated across what feels generations – how many different kinds of napkin are there? Towels ‘in use’ and ‘new’, are meticulously listed, as are varieties of curtains. There is a comparative modesty about the number of undergarments and pyjamas packed in relation to the quantities of table and bed-linen. The lists of silver and gold items are of an intimacy of a different kind. We see here not only cutlery and serving platters, but family traditions and heirlooms being handed over: each of Alma and Julius’ children received their own children’s cutlery set and beaker, engraved with their names. Jewellery was modest, but certainly meaningful and precious: wedding bands are handed over to gain permission to leave.

These lists were, of course, part of the cruel and dehumanising ritual Jews emigrating from Nazi Germany after 1938 had to conform to in order to receive permission to emigrate. They are testimony to the actions of the regime in pushing Jews out of society and holding Jews accountable for leaving Germany. As Marion Kaplan writes in her seminal study Between Dignity and Despair:

To emigrate with one’s belongings, one had to receive a permit from the Finance Department. This permit was obtainable only after preparing lists of all the items one wished to take. Lisa Brauer spent an entire week writing ‘endless lists, in five copies each … every item entered, every list neatly typed, and in the end I could only speak and breathe and think in shoes, towels, scissors, soap and scarves.’ (133)

I wonder, however, whether these lists are not also witnessing something else: it may just be that listing every single household item to be taken overseas, was also an act of resistance, or, indeed, multiple acts of resistance. It was possible perhaps, it seems to me, in these vast, itemised lists, to hide possessions one would not be permitted to take, such as valuables. And even if no attempt at hiding precious items was made, the simple act of listing everything from tattered cleaning rags to silk pyjamas, and to take all of it into a new life abroad can, I think, be read as an act which preserved dignity: taking away with oneself every last scrap of one’s existence from the country that so clearly did not want Jews present in its society, and claiming threadbare linen, mended multiple times, as one’s own exposed the absurdity of these lists, and also may have functioned as a final ironic salute to the German authorities who had invented these.

A project milestone

Now that the conclusion has been written, my monograph is complete and has been submitted to the critical eye of anonymous reviewers. It is time to breathe and reflect on this milestone in the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project.

I promised a monograph as one of the main ways of bringing the research results of Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces to scholarly and public attention. My contribution to the project, as initially conceived, was first and foremost in the area of religious history, and I had already identified Rabbi Salis Daiches as a person needing scholarly attention. Digging in the archives, it became clear that Salis Daiches’ biography would be a helpful conduit for a reflection on the impact of migration on religious communities. And thus my research resulted in a thematic biography which places Salis Daiches’ life in the context of the wider debates about religious leadership exercising the Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

My book seeks to contribute to a better understanding of what migrants who came to Britain between 1880-1914 brought to the Jewish religious landscape of Britain. Research on related themes in the earlier parts of the nineteenth century has been initiated and carried out by Abigail Green and Adam Mendelsohn, and Tobias Brinkmann and David Feldman have contributed to the discussion on migration in the early twentieth century. The important work of Green on Moses Montefiore and the ‘Jewish International’, and Mendelsohn on transnationalism in the Anglophone Jewish world, has alerted us to a scholarly neglect of the international networks Jews, particularly Jewish migrants, were part of through travel, correspondence and through their own successive migrations across the world. Brinkmann’s work on transmigrants sheds light on the points of departure and the staging posts of migration in continental Europe, while David Feldman’s recent article in East European Jewish Affairs challenges the dominant perception of the relationships between resident and immigrant Jews through a case study of London’s East End.

My own work applies and extends the insights of these scholars by placing them in the context of the so-called ‘Jewish periphery’ in the northernmost nation of the United Kingdom, Scotland. The biography of Salis Daiches who migrated from Lithuania via Germany to Britain provides a focal point for my narrative. In essence, I hope to show that immigrant rabbis who served in the ‘provinces’ had their own religious ideological agendas which they brought to bear on their work, and that these were shaped through their education, experience of migration, and the international community of Jewish religious functionaries they were part of. Far from ‘provincial’, Jewish leaders in cities significant to British history – such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds – are also important to the historiography of British Jewry, seeing that they actively promoted particular ways of being Jewish and saw their local field of influence as significant to the Jewish world as well as in regard to Jewish/non-Jewish relations.

No January (or February) blues

As mentioned in Phil’s latest post, for the project team, 2018 started with a conference at the British Library, where we shared our research and listened to the fruits of the AHRC Project directed by Stephen Muir at the University of Leeds Performing the Jewish Archive. Interdisciplinary conferences can be as disorienting as they can be rewarding. And so, for the first day, I felt like a fish out of water and enchanted at the same time. The Leeds project centres on musicology, theatre studies, and performance, combining the excavation of music and drama from the archives with staging and filming the resulting performances. The project is not only interdisciplinary itself, it also brought together researchers at institutions in the UK, the US and Australia, thus making it very international. Papers presented addressed the findings in archives, the processes of staging the works in different locations across the world while engaging performers and audiences with their historical context of their creation and first production. Indeed, audience research through a combination of questionnaires and filming were a new and experimental part of the project. Another aspect of the Leeds project, which permeated the three packed days of the conference, was research through experimental performance, bringing together a diverse group of artists and researchers to document their encounter with new materials. A fascinating record of performance-related research and a growing resource for researchers and teachers is the online archive https://jewishmusicandtheatre.org/.

You might ask, what we were doing there? Well, our project also works with archives whose holdings have hardly been explored. We are discovering, recovering, and producing archival materials. As cultural historians, musicologists, and scholars of literature, the three of us are engaged in a related endeavour. In November we organised a Mitchell Library in Glasgow to talk about what we found in the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre about the first ever Jewish Book Week in the UK, held in Glasgow in 1937. Naturally, these discoveries talked about performance, and to bring them to life and explore their meanings, we engaged in performance ourselves, the live audience being a crucial part of our work.

In London, we gave papers on the collections we are working with: Mia talked about survivor testimony and the editing processes from a survivor narrating, and writing their life story to its eventual publication by a dedicated publisher. Survivor and their narratives are the archive which then become another archive when they are collected as published works. Phil’s research on cantors who migrated to Scotland in the early twentieth century generated much discussion about Jewish liturgical music and was the paper most directly linked to the research of the Leeds project. I shared my thoughts on the Dorrith Sim Collection, raising questions about the different stake-holders relevant in assembling, archiving, and interpreting the collection: the family, the archive, and the researcher.We left London enriched by engaging scholarship, new contacts made, and new directions for our own work on Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces.

Jewish Edinburgh on Foot goes online

It has been awhile since the last walking tour about Edinburgh’s Jewish history took place in mid-September. Since then I have been busy preparing the tour for two further presentations:

  1. an app version of a self-guided tour, and
  2. a companion website.

As I send the files for the app version to our friends at Curious Edinburgh for technical work, I thought our readers might like to take a look at the companion website: https://jewishstudies.div.ed.ac.uk/edinburgh-jewish-walks/.

So, as you perambulate across Edinburgh on your various wintry errands, stop and pause at the unassuming locations detailed on the companion site and think yourself back in time, to 50, 100, or even 200 years ago. I hope you enjoy this little seasonal gift from Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces and the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society!

Celebrate Glasgow’s Jewish Book Week with us: 30 November, 5:30pm, Mitchell Library Glasgow

Book Week event eflyerMusic

Abi gezunt (as long as you’re healthy)
music Abe Ellstein, words Molly Picon

Afn pripetchik (by the fireside)
music and words Mark Warshawsky

Bay mir bistu sheyn (to me you’re beautiful)
words and music Sholem Secunda

Chicken soup freylekhs
words and music Stephanie Brickman

Di blayene platn fun roms drukeray (the lead plates of Romm’s Printing House) words Avrom Sutzkever, music Stephanie Brickman

Di Fidlroyz (the Fiddle Rose)
words Avrom Sutzkever, music Stephanie Brickman & Phil Alexander

Luftloshn (Skywriting)
words Ellen Galford, music Stephanie Brickman & Phil Alexander

1937 Book Week

Based on research conducted as part of the AHRC-funded Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project, Hannah Holtschneider and Mia Spiro talk about some of the history behind the UK’s first ever Jewish Book Week, and the remarkable role of Glasgow Jewish women in creating this landmark event.

Mitchell Library Yiddish Book Collection

The Mitchell Library has a collection of over 400 Yiddish books, most of which had previously been located in the Gorbals Public Library in Glasgow. In recent years a small group of Yiddishists has created a usable database of its contents. Heather Valencia gives a brief introduction to the collection, touching on problems encountered in attempting to create this bibliography, the range of literature represented and the interesting insights it affords into the lives and reading habits of the Jewish immigrant population of the Gorbals in the first half of the 20th century.


Jeffrey Robinson reads from his book Amenia: A Memoir (2002) – poetry and prose re-creations of a childhood idyll with grandparents in upstate New York, far away from but with precarious reverberations to Holocaust and war. He then discusses an extraordinary anthology of poems and visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the 1970s: A Big Jewish Book, ed. Jerome Rothenberg (1978). ‘Unlike previous anthologies of Jewish poetry, this collection reaches into areas that have been viewed as “sinister and dangerous”, to explore a tradition rich in powers and contradictions.’

Scottish Jewish Archives Centre

SJAC Director Harvey Kaplan gives a brief introduction to the work of the archive and some of the uses to which its collections have been put. Also on display are books and exhibition materials created and published by the Archives Centre.


Phil Alexander is Research Associate on the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project. His PhD focussed on klezmer and Yiddish music in today’s Berlin, and he is currently researching Scottish cantors of the early 20th century. He is also a busy jazz and world musician, leading the klezmer band Moishe’s Bagel and playing and recording with a large number of UK musicians.

Stephanie Brickman started out singing folk music as a child progressing to singing in all sorts of bands as an adult. It was only in her thirties that an interest in singing jazz led to some training. Discovering Yiddish music brought many threads in her life together as singing in Yiddish makes it possible to sing folk, jazz, musical theatre and tango in the same gig. In 2005 she and Phil Alexander formed the Yiddish Song Project and played many gigs for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences all over the UK performing well known favourites and also new compositions in Yiddish.

Hannah Holtschneider is Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of German Protestants Remember the Holocaust (2001), and History and Memory in the Museum (2011), as well as numerous articles. As PI on Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces she is currently working on a monograph on early twentieth century migration history and the impact of continental rabbis on the relationship between the Chief Rabbi, the London Beth Din and the ‘provinces’.

Harvey L. Kaplan graduated MA in History at the University of Glasgow and is director and co-founder (1987) of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre. He has contributed numerous articles on Scottish Jewish history and genealogy to journals and magazines, and has lectured nationally and internationally. He contributed a chapter on Scotland to the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy (2004). His booklet The Gorbals Jewish Community in 1901 was published in 2006 by the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre. In 2013, Harvey was one of the 3-man team who produced Jewish Glasgow – An Illustrated History.

Jeffrey C. Robinson’s most recent work includes: Wordsworth Day by Day: Reading His Work into Poetry Now (2005), a paperback edition of The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image (2006), Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism (2006), Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg (2009, winner American Book Award 2010), Untam’d Wing: Riffs on Romantic Poetry (poems) (2010) and Active Romanticism: Essays on the Continuum of Innovative Poetry from the Late-Eighteenth Century to the Present, co-edited with Julie Carr (2015). He has completed a book on late-Wordsworth poetics seen through his manuscripts. Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado, he is currently Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow.

Mia Spiro is Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, and Co-I of Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces. She is the author of Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction (Northwestern UP, 2013) and has published several articles on Jewish representation in literature and film in the period leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. She is currently working on a project, entitled Monsters and Migration: Golems, Vampires, and the Ghosts of War, which examines how elements of the supernatural have been used by modern writers and artists to grapple with oppression, migration, and antisemitism in the first half of the twentieth century.

Heather Valencia is a retired lecturer in German (Stirling University). She has been researching and translating modern Yiddish literature since the 1980s, and teaches Yiddish in Edinburgh. Among other publications she has produced a book of literary texts for students of Yiddish, and her bilingual edition of the poetry of Avrom Sutzkever is due to appear in early December.

JLSS at Book Week Scotland!

As we conclude the first quarter of the third year of our project, we reach another milestone in engaging with the wider public. On St Andrew’s Day we are contributing an event to Book Week Scotland 2017. JLSS and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre have teamed up with the Mitchell Library, and asked knowledgeable friends and colleagues to participate in a celebration of Glasgow’s Jewish Book Week (of 1937!) in poetry, story and song: http://scottishbooktrust.com/about/events/celebrating-glasgows-jewish-book-week-in-poetry-story-and-song

As you can see at the above link, it is a drop-in event, so no need to book a place. Please come along and discover the amazing story of Britain’s first Jewish Book Week, explore the treasures of the Yiddish book collection in the Mitchell Library with Dr Heather Valencia, enjoy original poetry with Professor Jeffrey Robinson, listen to new Yiddish music by Stephanie Brickman and Phil Alexander, and feast your eyes on the display of unique items from the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.

The Ernst Levin Collection at NHS Lothian Archives

This summer an EmployEd internship at the Centre for Research Collections in the University Library enabled student Kimyana Scherer to help archivist Louise Williams gain greater insight into the personal archive donated by neurologist Dr Ernst Levin along with his extensive medical archive. Ernst Levin came to Scotland as a refugee from Nazi Germany and established a successful career in Edinburgh.

Thus far hardly any work has been carried out on this personal archive, but Louise and Kimyana’s wonderful work demonstrates that there is scope for further investigation. The personal archive of Ernst Levin sits alongside other large private archives which are coming to light in recent years. Scholarship on these archives expands not only our historical knowledge about the lives of ordinary individuals in different parts of Europe during the the 1930s and 1940s, but it also suggests important new research avenues. The Levin archive – like the Dorrith Sim Collection I am working on – expands backwards into the nineteenth century and forwards far into the post-war decades. What we find in these collections can be narrated in many different ways, not all of which directly speak to what is currently conceived as Holocaust history and memory. Rather, it seems to me, these archives ask historians to rethink current categories of historiography in relation to the Holocaust, to Holocaust remembrance, to the histories of everyday life, as well as to biography and family history. Private lives which become part of public history have the ability to allow readers to come close to the depths of the ordinary. Here the items an individual chose to collect, preserve, and take on their flight from persecution and genocide, and what they amassed thereafter become the subject of inquiry, allowing historians to enter very personal and private spaces. What fascinates is the refraction of world historical events through such private lives, the decision-making processes which lead individuals and families to take one course of action, rather than another, the limitations of knowledge at the time, and the – often devastating – consequences for their lives. We may not gain insights from such archives which change our understanding of the big historical narratives, but we will expand our ability to view historical events through the eyes of those who were directly affected by them. It is an exciting time to work in this field, and a great privilege to be able to access such rich and varied collections.

Kimyana has blogged about her work here: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/levin/


Jewish Edinburgh on Foot

Yesterday was Festival Sunday at the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation, where Jewish-themed Fringe acts delighted the community with trailers to their shows. The annual event was paired this Sunday with a celebration of Edinburgh’s Jewish history as part of the J200 programme of events. Together with the oldest Jewish cultural organisation in Scotland, the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society, Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces hosted a walking tour of the city which led participants on a journey along landmarks of two centuries of Jewish life in Edinburgh.

2017-08-13 12.17.00

6 Millerfield Place, former home of the family of Rabbi Salis Daiches. © Ewa Lipinska

Tourists joined residents in exploring the move of Jewish community from the Old Town (Canongate) to the St Leonard’s area which was densely populated with new immigrants from the 1880s onwards. With increasing economic stability, the community moved further south into Newington, Marchmont, and even into the Grange, while shops such as bakeries and butchers remained in the area of the Bridges.

Walkers encountered residents through memorable stories, involving court cases, and burial sites, and many individuals such as the Lipetz brothers who ran a GP practice in Roxburgh Street in the middle of the twentieth century, and who were early advocates of the NHS and a multi-disciplinary approach to health and social care; and about Arthur Kleinberg whose bakery was on East Crosscauseway. Arthur shared his challah recipe when it became clear that his bakery had to close for want of a new proprietor. Tour participants heard about Joe Lurie, the last kosher butcher in Edinburgh and soul of the community, whose father Abraham served in World War I as part of a British Jewish Battalion, and whose brother was a GP in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas.

Crossing the Meadows, the walk stopped at the bench facing the tennis courts to hear Berl Osborne’s recollection of the ‘Yiddish Parliament’ which involved shabbat afternoon gatherings of Jewish men to kibbitz about community affairs, while the community’s youth perambulated on the Meadows’ paths. The walk ended at the synagogue in Salisbury Road, a landmark signalling the union of a previously divided community in 1932 under the leadership of Rabbi Salis Daiches.

Tickets for the next three tours scheduled this summer can be booked here: https://jewishstudies.div.ed.ac.uk/edinburgh-jewish-walks/ 

Take a walk this summer and discover Edinburgh’s Jewish history

Over the past seven months, a small group of members of the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society and myself met to develop a walking tour showcasing Edinburgh’s Jewish history. The result, which we are presenting this summer, is Jewish Edinburgh on Foot, a 90min tour which takes participants on a stroll from the city centre and the earliest known Jewish residences and burial ground through the heartland of Jewish life in the early twentieth century on the Southside of the city, to the only purpose-built synagogue in Salisbury Road.

Elaine Samuel, Gillian Raab, Michael Adler, and I had a great time piecing together stories about individuals, engaging in detective work to locate synagogues and shops, tenements with mainly Jewish residents, reading old editions of the Edinburgh Jewish Star magazine, and listening to the memories of elderly residents. Gillian Raab contributed her expertise in statistics to understand more about the living conditions and health of Jewish residents in the city. Elaine’s love of Yiddish led to the wonderful find of a story about the ‘Yiddish Parliament’ meeting on shabbes afternoons by the tennis courts on the Meadows, told be Berl Osborne and skilfully put together by another Yiddish and local history enthusiast, the writer Ellen Galford. Michael’s long-standing friendship with the Lipitz and Lurie families brought us oral history testimony about the middle of the twentieth century work and trade in the Jewish and wider Edinburgh communities. My own work on the religious history of the community leads the tour to the places of work and worship of Edinburgh’s most famous rabbi, Salis Daiches.

No walking tour can capture everything. We feel we only scratched the surface of the personal stories attached to the Jewish spaces of Edinburgh’s Southside. And yet, what we show in this walking tour offers a useful framework for a social history of the Jewish community in the past 200 years. Living quarters, health, education, trade, and professions, language, and religion change from the time of the arrival of the first immigrants through the following generations at rapid speed, something which can be observed through the route taken by the tour, and at its destination, Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation. The exhibition Edinburgh Jews, itself the result of a previous project making research accessible to a wider audience, is on view in the community centre in Salisbury Road.

If you want to participate in a walking tour, please book your place on Eventbrite. The walking tours are part of the J200 celebrations of the Edinburgh Jewish community, and of the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces research project. You can preview the route taken by the walk on Google Maps.

We hope that later this year, the walking tour will be accessible online, and become part of a self-guided set of walking tours in Edinburgh as part of the Curious Edinburgh project. So watch this space!