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A Transnational Perspective on Scottish Jewish History

Published November 18, 2019 by Dr Hannah Holtschneider

Saul Bellow's review of David Daiches's 1956 memoir Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood suggested that 'in spite of Mr. Daiches's matter-of-fact tone the idea of a Scottish Jew is a little startling'. Indeed, Scottish Jewish history has hardly been at the centre of British Jewish history, but rather, if mentioned at all, been relegated to the 'provincial' margins of concern. For the first generation of chroniclers of British Jewish history, the 'provinces' began on the other side of the M25 and anything worth writing about was focused firmly on London. Bill Williams's The Making of Manchester Jewry, published in 1985, was one of the first major studies interested in the formation of communities in other parts of the British Isles. Following this volume, we can detect an increase in efforts at preserving contemporary Jewish heritage and new energy to extend the study of Anglo-Jewry, and move it properly into the academy. A second generation of scholars, led by David Cesarani, Tony Kushner, and Todd Endelman, linked the historiography of British Jewry with other current topics, such as the study of minorities, of suburbanisation, of urban history, of refugee and migrant histories, and of post-colonial history, embedding their work in the study of British history. Scottish Jews, however, stayed on the margins of inquiry, even though in terms of British history Edinburgh can hardly be thought of as provincial and Glasgow, during the height of Jewish immigration, was 'the Second City of the British Empire'.

The more recent emergence of transnational history signalled a turn in the study of Scottish Jewish history, so that today local history is linked with migration studies and the study of places migrants left behind in their quest for a new life. Transnational history is interested in evidence of the patterns of communication and influence which run between places of significance in migrants's lives. From this perspective, British-Jewish history, rather than being confined to these islands, can be understood through research into the paths of migration taken by Jews from Europe into the Anglophone world since the onset of modernity. Movement between places and the nature of continuing relationships with communities of origin allows scholars to understand better many social, economic, political, and religious phenomena. And so we find that the Jewish history of places with small Jewish populations, when not seen in isolation, presents a tapestry of relations connecting villages, towns, cities, countries, and continents as migrants negotiate their lives, settle, and often uproot again to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Such changes in historiography form the basis for my book Jewish Orthodoxy in Scotland, which adds to the growing scholarship in transnational Jewish history. Through the life of one migrant rabbi who came to Britain in 1903, Salis Daiches (the academic David Daiches's father), I explore the migration and developments in Jewish practice, tradition and ideology in relation to authority in community governance in early twentieth-century Britain.

Ideas about leadership, authority, education and community structure clashed in the first two decades of the twentieth century in the Jewish communities of Britain, both within the London-based, Orthodox United Synagogue and within the broader sphere of influence of the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Empire. As immigration stagnated since the beginning of World War I, and immigrants were poised to stay rather than seeing Britain as a staging post in their journey west, Jewish communities had to come to terms with the majority of their congregants being first-generation immigrants: they had to deal with the resulting cultural conflicts between immigrant and resident Jews whose families had anglicised one or more generations earlier.

Salis Daiches's journey – from Vilna via Berlin to Britain – highlights central aspects of the processes of adjustment dealt with in the communities across the United Kingdom. Salis Daiches here exemplifies trends in Lithuanian and German Jewish Orthodoxy, such as the desire to bring together religious and secular life, while also testifying to a network of interlocutors in the global religious Jewish world; he was part of a large Jewish intellectual circle.

While the historical record speaks of turbulent times, physical traces of the lives and work of Salis Daiches and his contemporaries are not easy to spot in the places in which they once lived. Many congregations are no more, synagogue buildings were sold and demolished as Jews moved towards other centres of Jewish life after World War II, former lively communities are depleted or wholly transformed with new waves of immigration of Jews from elsewhere in Britain and beyond. Here scholars can become custodians and communicators of histories invisible to the contemporary resident and visitor. By linking narratives and places, we can bring to the surface the nature of Jewish life in a city, the role of religious figures such as Rabbi Salis Daiches in Edinburgh. We can make traces of Jewish life visible by reading memoirs such as David Daiches's Two Worlds and by paying close attention to the streets we walk in and the buildings that survive. For example, the only surviving purpose-built Jewish structure in Edinburgh is the synagogue in Salisbury Road (inaugurated in 1932), arguably Salis Daiches's major achievement celebrating the unification of resident and immigrant Jewish congregations. We may not be able to see evidence of Jewish life on the surface of the cityscape, but stories linked to sites are a way of examining a crucial part of Edinburgh's immigrant history.

If you are interested in local Jewish history, you can view the online exhibition Edinburgh Jews, and if you are visiting take a stroll through the city with the self-guided tour Jewish Edinburgh on Foot.

Dr Hannah Holtschneider is a cultural historian at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests span early twentieth century Jewish history in Britain, Jewish migration history, the impact of the Holocaust on individuals and communities, Holocaust memorialisation, and the representation of history in museums.

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