SCoJeC is delighted to have sponsored the excellent conference on Scottish Jewish Arts and Life as part of the European Days of Jewish Culture and Heritage. The conference took place during the the Cultural Connections exhibition at the Maclaurin Galleries at Rozelle House in Ayr, less than half a mile from the birthplace of Robert Burns.
As happens at almost all our events, members of the audience found their own new Jewish connections too: after Harvey Kaplan, director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, spoke about the history of the Ayr Jewish Community, several former members joined in a lively discussion. The great grand daughter of Harris Freeman, the founder of the community, was in the audience; a non-Jewish participant was fascinated to discover more about her own Jewish heritage; and two sisters who had left in 1952 were delighted to see themselves in a photograph of the community's young people.
Fiona Frank then led a discussion about how the contemporary experience of Being Jewish in Scotland, had changed since SCoJeC’s Scottish Government funded inquiry, carried out in 2012, asked interviewees what's good about being Jewish in Scotland, what's not so good about it, and what could be done to improve their experience. Commenting on the findings, one woman remembered being the only girl in her class who was addressed by her surname at school. When we talked about the reliability of the religion question in the census, another participant said she had not identified herself as Jewish because "that way they can come for you".
The day was rounded off by a beautifully researched talk by Archives volunteer Dianna Wolfson about her maternal grandmother, Dinah Bloom. Despite many tribulations throughout her life, including times spent drawing poor relief, she managed to send one son to Hutchesons' Grammar School, and he later became a doctor, managed his own care home, and ran successfully for city councillor.
The second day of the conference focused on Scottish Jewish artists, several of whom featured in the gallery’s Cultural Connections exhibition. Deborah Haase, curator of the Scottish Jewish Archives, gave a fascinating talk on the life of artist and Holocaust survivor Hilda Goldwag, who had escaped from Austria after the Anchluss. Already recognised as a young artist in Vienna, she obtained work as a designer in Glasgow, and painted Glasgow life and Glasgow buildings from a unique perspective throughout her long life. Hilda lost most of her family in the Holocaust, and Deborah talked about the sadness that she felt could be seen through her art, some of which was on show in the exhibition.
The programme continued with beautifully shot colour footage, never previously shown, of the Frisher family holidays in Paris and around Scotland in the 1950s, and a short clip of Benno Schotz working on a sculpture of Joe Frischer entitled Philosopher with Broken Nose. His daughter, Evelyn Strang, commented on the film, and she and her brother spoke about their crystal clear memories of escaping from Germany before the war, aged 5 and 3: being bundled out of an airless and windowless train in Poland along with many others; there was no chance to pack, but their mother had, in fact, managed to pack a small suitcase before leaving, but in her panic had filled it with socks - "only socks"!
Bringing the story up to date, contemporary artist Miriam Vickers showed us some of her beautiful landscapes and etchings, and talked about her own journeys – from Chicago to Scotland, and her trips to the concentration camps where many members of her parents' families had perished.
The conference concluded with the film Hannah Frank, The Spark Divine, made in 2008 to celebrate the artist's hundredth birthday. The award winning director, Sarah Thomas, talked about the profound feeling of connection and community she had felt, as a non-Jewish film maker, around the care home where Hannah lived in the final years of her life; and about the many coincidences which had led to this film being a truly family affair: one of Hannah's great nieces, Jen Rankin, who bore an uncanny resemblance to her, played the young Hannah, and when she wanted a Scottish actress to read some of Hannah’s early diaries, a friend recommended someone who turned out to be Hannah's great-niece.
There was a lovely atmosphere in the gallery on both days and people took the chance to look round the exhibition, sit in the courtyard, and visit the extensive grounds of Rozelle Park. One participant said: "This was a really fascinating opportunity to find out more about the very significant artistic contribution of Scotland's Jewish Community, against the background of both its history and its contemporary concerns. The Maclaurin Gallery and SCoJeC are to be hugely commended for putting these "Cultural Connections" together, and making the additional connections with Enjoy's Family Festival Experience and the Jewish Musical Odyssey. We're really looking forward to this further cultural connection between Baroque gypsy music, classical Hebrew songs, Klezmer, and traditional Scottish folk tunes coming to Ayr for the finale of its foot-stamping, hand-clapping, tour of Scotland!"