When it comes to Britain’s Jewish history, Wales is overlooked

Photograph of members and clergy of Cardiff’s Jewish community; identified: Abe Schwartz, JE Rivlin, the Reverend Harris Jerevitch, the Reverend Gershon Grey, MJ Cohen, the Rabbi of Newport (name unknown), the Reverend Harris Hamburg, Alter Rivlin, Rabbi Grunitz; photographer: S Edelman; c.1920; Glamorgan Archives ref. DJR/5/21. (Via Jewish News)
Photograph of members and clergy of Cardiff’s Jewish community; identified: Abe Schwartz, JE Rivlin, the Reverend Harris Jerevitch, the Reverend Gershon Grey, MJ Cohen, the Rabbi of Newport (name unknown), the Reverend Harris Hamburg, Alter Rivlin, Rabbi Grunitz; photographer: S Edelman; c.1920; Glamorgan Archives ref. DJR/5/21. (Via Jewish News)

When it comes to British Jewish history, Wales is overlooked. Consider the name of the subject, ‘Anglo-Jewish History’. Rarely does this name refer to the predominant language of the United Kingdom – English. More typically it refers to the fact that most British Jews live in England. But it overlooks the fact that Jews are, and have been, spread out the length and breadth of the British Isles, including Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (and the Republic), the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Few of these places can be described as ‘Anglo’.

And just as London comes to stand in for English Jewry as a whole, when attention has been turned to Wales, it has tended to focus on the south of that nation. Until recently, when historians bothered to explore the Welsh-Jewish experience, they focussed on its major metropoles – Cardiff and Swansea. It’s true that by far the largest number of Jews have lived in those two cities – and continue to do so today. There were also dozens of tiny communities dotted across the Welsh valleys, serving the local mining communities. And, the one example of a homegrown Welsh ‘pogrom’ happened in south Wales in 1911 in Tredegar.

But this obscures the fact that Jews have lived – and continue to do – in the north of the principality. Some of the first recorded Jews in Wales came in the late thirteenth century to where Edward I was building his ‘iron ring’ of castles to encircle Snowdonia, namely the towns of Caernarfon and Beaumaris. When the Jews were expelled from these islands, initially from Wales before England, they returned to some of those places where they had once settled. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, communities were established along the north Wales coast in Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Rhyl and Wrexham.

Unfortunately, all of these communities have disappeared, but the Jews haven’t. A synagogue survives in Llandudno, although it is owned and used by Chabad from Manchester. There is even a kosher nursing home and hotel there I hear. Jews from Birmingham meet in Welshpool and across the summer months many Jewish summer camps and minyanim decamp to north Wales. Ten years ago, a North Wales Jewish Network sprung up.

Yet, by and large, north and mid Wales Jewry is still ignored. The experiences of those of us who live here are such that they cannot simply be subsumed into that of the south. Firstly, the north and mid Wales regions are not urban and industrial and are largely rural. Secondly, they are predominantly Welsh speaking in the northwest and west of Wales. Thirdly, given the peculiarities of Welsh geography, exacerbated by the lack of north-south transport infrastructure, these communities have tended to look to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool rather than Cardiff and London. The number of friends who are visiting Swansea and ask how close it is to my hometown of Bangor illustrates the general ignorance of this last point.

It is time we explored the entirety of the Welsh-Jewish experience, one that cannot be defined simply by what is happening in London, Cardiff and Swansea. To be fair, historians such as David Morris and Cai Parry-Jones have begun this work, but we need to bring the various initiatives together, to unite the strands of Welsh Jewish history. To this effect, Scotland provides the model with its Scottish Jewish Archives Centre which collects and preserves the material heritage of its Jewish communities, as well as its Scottish Council of Jewish Communities – the representative body of all the Scottish Jewish communities.

And when we have a Welsh Jewish Archives Centre and a Welsh Council of Jewish Communities, just please don’t stick it in Cardiff. This only cements the problem. And it takes far too long to get there!

About the Author
Nathan is a Jewish Professor at Bangor University
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