JLSS panel at ‘The Future of the Archive’ conference

On January 15th, the Jewish Lives/Scottish Spaces team delivered a panel session to the final event of the international ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ project. The Future of the Archive conference took place over three days at the British Library, with papers that ranged from children’s opera in Theresienstadt to Irish synagogue life of the early 20th century. For the JLSS panel, this was an excellent opportunity to engage our ongoing research with the wider problems and issues of working with archives and archive materials. The conversations that emerged have given us several new potential avenues of dissemination. Watch this space for further details…

BFE one-day conference – ‘Listening to Difference’: Music and Multiculturalism

“Who’s a Jew? Who’s a Scot?”: Music and immigrant identity amongst Glasgow Jews

I will be presenting some of my Jewish Lives/Scottish Spaces project research on Saturday October 21st at the British Forum for Ethnomusicology one-day conference, held at Cambridge University. My paper discusses the role of music in the integration of late 19th and early 20th century Jewish immigration to Glasgow, focusing on issues of acculturation, narratives of ‘home’, and perceived differences between the longer-established Garnethill community and that of the more recently-arrived Gorbals Jews. This will be the first chance to put this research to a musicological audience, marking an opportunity to bring the material to a wider academic circle, and also to set it within more recent narratives of multiculturalism and the place of music in the city.

See https://bfeoneday2017.wordpress.com for more details


Two months in, early reflections

From a background of contemporary musicology and cultural studies, entering into the world of the archive has been an unusual experience. There are, however, clear ways that I can apply previous learning to this project, and it is these possible links which have been occupying my thoughts during my first two months on the job.

Cultural studies, in the UK especially, has since its inception in the late 1960s often been bound up with issues of ideology and the role of culture (popular and otherwise) in reinforcing, opposing, or negotiating dominant ways of thinking. Initially, this frequently meant the close re-reading of texts (music, film, literature, art, fashion) through new and occasionally radical lenses of class, gender, race, ethnicity, nation, subculture, semiotics and more. If this at times resulted in an overly dogmatic critical approach – people, after all, regularly exist across multiple subject positions – it nevertheless foregrounded the ways in which culture can become a site of struggle within which different and contesting meanings can be made. This rooting of the theoretical within everyday practice has clear resonances for a project like Jewish Lives/Scottish Spaces, dealing as it does with material culture and the multiple representations of identity therein – Jewish/Scottish, immigrant/host, Eastern/Western… For example, when in 1939 the Glasgow Jewish Institute Male Voice Choir performed a selection of ‘Modern Palestinian Folk Songs’ for a live BBC broadcast, were they doing so as Jews, as Scots, as Zionists, as amateur ethnomusicologists, or perhaps all of the above? Cultural negotiations like this reveal layers within layers: Jewish, Glaswegian, ‘regional’ (Scottish), the early BBC’s nation-unto-nation discourse, all counterbalanced by an expressed allegiance to the Yishuv – though perhaps more as a musically exotic ‘elsewhere’ than as a future home.

Questions such as these point to a fundamental theme of my research going forward: the different possibilities for community (real and imagined) and cultural identification that music offered Scottish Jews in the early twentieth century. In its distinctive combination of the affective, the embodied, the real-time, and through both participative and performative ways of being, music offers a singular route into these discussions:

[Music’s] ‘inherent characteristics’, its use of the iconic and non-denotative potentials of sounds, provides it with a special capacity to exercise power in a direct and concrete fashion. It can speak directly, concretely and with precision to the states of awareness which constitute our subjectivity, our very being.
(John Shepherd & Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory, 1997:213)


A large part of my recent studies, as well as my professional musical life, has been spent in the field of klezmer and Yiddish song. Given the numbers of Yiddish-speaking Jews arriving in Glasgow in the early decades of the twentieth century, it is highly likely that music such as this was present in the city some form or other, notwithstanding an almost total lack of documentation. Therefore, another initial task will be to dig around for any small evidence of music-making that I can find: in newspapers, oral histories, recordings, images and novels. In what ways did Jewish immigrants to Scotland hold onto their ‘old country’ musical vernacular, and how rapidly did they adopt that of their new home? If the musical traditions of Eastern Europe did not endure significantly in the Gorbals, the Pleasance and elsewhere, what took their place and why?

There has been no scholarly research into Jewish music in Scotland, so currently the field lies wide open. A further fruitful avenue of enquiry, and one blessed with a little more archival evidence to uncover, is through an analysis of some of the cantors who served Scotland’s synagogues in the last century. This is something that I will be exploring in several conference papers later this year. Now that cantors have been absent from the Scottish Jewish landscape for several decades, it is perhaps easy to forget the important role they once inhabited and its influence on the wider musical life of their congregations. Theirs is a story waiting to be told. But equally importantly, where did these figures stand in relation to the varied cultural identities at play in Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century? Almost all the significant figures who served in Scottish synagogues during this period were immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, a background which would surely have resonated with those they led in service every week. Kenneth Collins, in his 2016 survey of Scottish Jewish history, notes the importance of this in specifically musical terms: “For an increasingly secularised membership, though reared on the traditions of Eastern Europe, it was the vocal ability of the chazzan on the High Holy Days, rather than the scholarship of the rabbi, which reconnected the immigrant Jew with the traditions from which he was being estranged.”

University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, University Registry collection, GB248 R4/3/1

Frequently these men had cut their cantorial teeth in one of the large Jewish Eastern European prewar urban centres: Warsaw, Vilna, Budapest. And despite successful early careers they were subject to the same external pressures that impelled so many of their fellow Jews to head West. For Isaac Hirshow, born in Vitebsk in 1886 and cantor of Glasgow’s Garnethill synagogue from 1925, these wounds were still fresh three decades later:

I was born, brought up and shared the fate of my Jewish brethren in a country vast and rich. Yet, vast and rich as the country was, the Jew was cast into a corner like into a dustbin – in want, in misery, in darkness and fear…the last drop of his blood drained, the marrow of his bones dried up. (Isaac Hirshow, speaking in 1950)

Although he was already a highly literate and trained musician, Hirshow nevertheless saw fit to further his studies once in Scotland, becoming first ever Bachelor of Music at Glasgow University. What does this piece of information tell us about his own perceptions of his music and its relationship to the various musical traditions that Hirshow straddled?

Early days, early thoughts. Intriguing connections.

‘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…

‘The Lit’

On Sunday March 26th Mia and Hannah gave a joint talk to Edinburgh’s Jewish Literary Society: “Jews in the Archive: Haunting Memories in the Aftermath of the Holocaust”. About 35 people were in attendance, keen to hear about – and contribute to – the diverse themes surrounding this ongoing research.

Speaking about the Dorrith Sim archive which she will be exploring in detail over the coming year, Hannah began with a useful theoretical outline of the recent growth in personal archiving: the increasing appeal to both researchers and (grand)children of opening the proverbial suitcase in the attic. With reference to the work of Daniel Mendelssohn, Joachim Schlör and others, she discussed how collections of family documents and correspondence offer the possibility of framing generalised discourses of migration on a more human scale, of understanding national and international histories through an individual set of voices. At the same time, however, they raise occasionally difficult questions about the researcher’s (or anyone else’s) gaze: what do we desire to see and learn from a personal archive, and whose voices do we expect to hear? Hannah situated Dorrith Sim’s life and collections within this fluid context, whilst simultaneously drawing out some of the more unusual issues which confront the researcher when dealing with this particular archive. The materials in the Dorrith Sim archive are the combined work of her paternal grandparents Alma and Julius, her uncle Ernst, and Dorrith herself. Consequently, they offer multiple historical viewpoints and suggest myriad stories. This is compounded by the fact that at the time of the dominant background narrative – the Holocaust – Dorrith herself was a young girl, implicitly reducing her own agency in this part of ‘her’ story. Hannah also pointed to the striking ordinariness of the archive, its everyday character. This too raises important questions about the relationship between the personal and the historical, the subjectivity of daily life vs the ‘big story’, and the importance of – and inherent difficulty in – retelling an everyday history (Alltagsgeschichte) of those frequently glossed as ’victims‘.

In a smoothly-choreographed transition, Mia took over to speak about Dybbuks, hauntings and the 1951 Glasgow Festival of Jewish Arts. She drew attention to the perhaps unlikely choice of S. An-sky’s 1913 play The Dybbuk as a vehicle to present Jewish culture to the post-war British world. The play, set in a 19th century shtetl, confronts the at times oppositional themes of personal love, social expectation, family life (and death), cultural history and of course the spirit world. An-sky’s text does not, however, come near to resolving any of its powerful internal contradictions, choosing instead to hold competing narrative forces in a tense yet creative balance. Mia argued that the play’s dominant themes and their continued pull upon Jewish cultural imagination can themselves be read as their own form of haunting: the very real (and recent) spectre of eastern European death and destruction continuing to haunt post-war Jewish memory. In particular, she contrasted the Jewish Institute Players’ well-received performance with a far less successful tour by Israel’s Habimah theatre company in 1948. Despite previous successes with the play, the post-war USA tour almost destroyed Habimah – to the extent that some members of the company began to suspect that the play itself was cursed. Linking her talk back to Hannah’s discussion of archives, Mia also drew attention to the play’s origins in the folkloristic collection expeditions undertaken by An-sky, Joel Engel and others in the early years of the 20th century. Borne out of a desire to document a disappearing culture, these expeditions formed the beginnings of modern east European Jewish archiving. In the process, they documented and formalised materials intended to inspire contemporary artists in the creation of a newly radical and socially-informed folk art ­– a tantalising possibility which was to remain sadly unfulfilled.

The discussion which followed the talk was lively and wide-ranging. Particular interest was given to the complex questions that Hannah had foregrounded (which stories she might choose to tell and why) and also to an engaged discussion of the unpredictable and precarious serious of events which have since accompanied An-sky’s archival materials. Both Mia and Hannah will present this ongoing research as part of Glasgow University’s ‘Narrative Spaces in Scottish Jewish Culture: A Comparative Perspective’ colloquium, which takes place on April 23rd-24th.