Author J David Simons had planned to be out of the country in May – but that wasn’t to be, and SCoJeC was able to track him down in Glasgow. He had been travelling for a while, but when the coronavirus covid-19 lockdown was announced he ended up staying with his mother and brother in Glasgow: and that’s where we found him six weeks later, happy to help SCoJeC raise funds for the Aberdeen synagogue roof appeal by an online conversation with SCoJeC Projects and Outreach Manager Fiona Frank.
The audience came from Aberdeen, from all over Scotland, from the rest of the UK, and from around the world, including Canada, Israel, the USA, the Netherlands, Mexico, and Spain! Some people 'arrived' early to chat in the virtual zoom ‘bar’, and as the participants reported, “I enjoyed it and was pleased to be able to introduce myself”, “lots of fun to talk to other people”.
David began by explaining to Fiona that his Glasgow to Galilee trilogy is very much about his own story and his relationship with Scottishness and Jewishness, with community, identity, and conflict. He grew up in Glasgow as a member of Habonim, the socialist Zionist youth group. He went to live on a kibbutz in 1978, and stayed for around six years. And the three books, like David, travel between Glasgow, Israel, and back again.
The first book, The Credit Draper, tells the story of his grandfather, one of the many Jewish immigrants who travelled around Scotland, selling goods on credit to willing customers. In those days, that was the only way to purchase items on credit. It is 1912 when David’s young hero, Avram Escovitz, is sent to Scotland by his mother in order to escape being drafted into the Russian army. Arriving in Glasgow aged twelve, he is taken in by the Kahn family in the Gorbals, and discovers he has a rare talent for playing football. However, he isn’t able to pursue a career as a footballer, and instead he begins to travel as a credit draper with his Uncle Mendel in the Highlands of Scotland – and the book.
The Liberation of Celia Kahn describes the life of one of the daughters of the household that gave Avram a home in the earlier novel. She develops an interest in socialist politics, becoming involved in the feminist movement and in campaigning for birth control, and eventually moves to Israel, where as David did, she lives on a kibbutz.
The final book in the trilogy, The Land Agent, deals with the conflict over land in the Middle East in the 1920s, starting with a story about a strategic piece of ground close to Celia’s kibbutz that doesn’t appear to exist on any map. The ensuing struggle for possession involves the British, the French, the local Bedouin, the kibbutzniks, the Palestine Jewish Colonisation Association, and a Russian engineer with plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the disputed site.
David also told Fiona about his later novels: An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, about a British novelist who returns to Japan to the hotel where he once wrote his famous novel and also fell in love, and A Woman of Integrity, about the relationship of two female actors from two different eras. Since then he has written another novel, and is waiting to hear from his publisher about its fate!
This was far from David’s first SCoJeC event. In 2012, he was part of the first Jewish event in 50 years to be held in Inverness – where has grandfather had once been the rabbi – and in 2015 he toured the Highlands with our Projects and Outreach worker Fiona Frank, so we were very pleased to welcome him to our ‘stage’ again.
Many of the audience told us they’d read all of David’s books, and others planned to get hold of them as soon as possible after the talks. As members of the audience commented afterwards, “brilliant talk, very informative”, “Such informative and engaging presentations” and “What a delightful evening ... I am so impressed by the many varied and interesting projects you are devising for SCoJeC. Delighted to be able to zoom in during these surreal times and to see old friends again from the various corners of the world!”