Sunday, January 02, 2011

How Greenbaum Was My Valley

A fascinating history of the Jews in Wales, from a 1975 edition of the Jewish Chronicle. Interesting for the light it shines not only on Jewish but on Welsh culture as was :

"The brooding hills and green valleys of South Wales are evocative of so many things. To the Jewish traveller they speak of a life's story exceedingly strange and affecting. He sees an alien figure bent low under his outsize pack, walking up hill and down dale for mile after lonely mile. At the mining village tucked away beneath a dark hill, children greet him with: "The packman has come!" He knocks on doors, his only English words, "anything wanting?" (Welsh is a double-sealed book.)

Come Friday, he makes for home and family, Sabbath in synagogue and the Chevra Shass, the talmudic study circle. He is a learned Jew, among the few precious possessions he has brought from in der heim is his shass, his well-fingered volumes of the Talmud, and a desire to 'learn' more. He has brought his determination to keep 'the Law' whatever the difficulties. And so if he was caught on his way by the advent of the Sabbath, he would leave his pack and the small pile of money he had earned on the table of a friendly miner's cottage, and come back for his treasure on Sunday knowing it would all be there untouched."

A little like the story of the Mohammeds of Stornoway, that - their patriarch walked the hills of 50s Lewis with a suitcase. But the story in Wales is of communities growing with the boom years, then decline and in many places disappearance as economic opportunity shrank and (as with the Mohammeds) the younger generation moved away.

Among the other gems are the shortage of marriageable youth in Swansea, Jewish miners, the first Welsh-born Jew (Levi Michael, 1754, in Haverfordwest of all places), the sad decline of the Port Talbot synagogue (derelict in 1975, now built over) the Welsh-speaker who tells the author, only half in jest: "To be a real Welshman, you must be chapel", and the fact (new to me) that Churchill sent troops to Tredegar in 1911 after anti-Jewish riots.

Being a 1975 piece, there is no mention of the most famous Welsh Jew of all, a man who saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, from burglary, assault and crime of all sorts by his decision, as 1995 Home Secretary, to start locking up criminals- the Blessed Michael Howard.