Regular readers of this blog will know that over the past twelve months, while trying to cope with the breakdown of my marriage and family life, travelling has often been my way of “connecting” to my history and past, in the hope this might help me to make some sense of my present.
Thus with my children I revisited my teenage haunts in Sydney, Australia; I had a chance encounter in London with an alumnus of my former primary school in Johannesburg, South Africa; I returned to Jerusalem in Israel, where I was born; I found an old forgotten story I wrote two decades ago of a visit to Fes, Morocco, where my paternal family comes from and where I stumbled across my father’s first classroom; and I had journeys of reflection to both Warsaw and Auschwitz in Poland, where amongst other things I wound up playing soccer in the middle of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto.
The one thing I have thus far resisted doing, however, is to visit Lithuania, which is where my maternal grandparents came from. I have in the past few years had several opportunities to travel there, but at the last moment I have always shied away from going. I had a particularly close relationship with my grandmother, and although she died more than ten years ago her presence remains very much alive inside of me, still casting her light, and also at times shadow, over my life. I guess as a result I have always been a little bit scared of going to Lithuania, and of what I might find or feel there.
These last few weeks, however, I seem to have been bumping into things Lithuanian wherever I go. Like flicking through the TV channels not too long ago in Singapore, and where I landed up watching an hour-long documentary about Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Or on a plane a few weeks back, where the airline magazine had an in-depth feature about Lithuania.
Then last week I flew to London for some work engagements, and on my first morning I went into the tube station, and came face to face with a giant billboard promoting budget flights to Lithuania. The next morning, I stopped for a coffee at a random cafe in the West End, where the young man who served me turned out to be from Lithuania, and excitedly told me about all the wonderful things to do there.
All of which is slighty odd, don’t you think, given that Lithuania is a small Baltic state that frankly is so insignificant on a world scale most people wouldn’t even know where it is on the map. Clearly, someone or something has been trying to send me a message.
At the end of last week I travelled to Scotland. The company I work for is developing a large gas project near the town of Stirling. I spent some time in the office and out in the field, and then to cap off the week there was a large oil and gas industry gathering in Edinburgh, on the Friday night. A friendly investment bank had also invited me as their guest to the Scotland vs Italy rugby match, which was to be played at Murrayfield stadium the following afternoon.
I had planned to use Saturday morning to catch up on sleep, but I was still suffering from a touch of jet-lag and woke up quite early. I therefore found myself with a half day to kill before the afternoon’s rugby festivities.
My first thought was to enjoy a leisurely stroll around central Edinburgh, which is a stunning city – classical stone buildings, historic cobbled streets, parks, cathedrals and castles. But in terms of weather, February in Edinburgh is no picnic at all, and on this particular Saturday morning it was especially cold with a light sleet coming down from the gray, overcast sky. Within ten minutes of setting off my hands were numb from the cold, and the tip of my nose – the only exposed part of my face, which was otherwise completely wrapped up in a beanie and scarf – felt raw and ice-burned.
In short, it occurred to me that a morning walk through Edinburgh, although a nice idea in theory, was in practice going to be a monumentally dumb thing to do – unpleasant at best; hypothermia-inducing at worst.
I stood there shivering from the cold, regretting very much having been in such a rush to leave the cosy warmth of the hotel. At the same time I was in no hurry to go back: hanging about the lobby making chit-chat with oil industry folks, most of whom were still badly hung-over from the previous night’s dinner, didn’t seem like too much fun either.
I hailed a passing taxi and jumped in, more just to get out of the cold than anything else. In that very instant, as I sat down in the back seat, I had a thought. It was a slightly sudden and completely unexpected thought, for sure, but it was a thought, nonetheless: I would go to synagogue.
Now before you ask, I have absolutely no clue as to why or how the notion of going to synagogue decided to pop into my head just then. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t been to, or even contemplated going to, a Saturday morning synagogue service for years, anywhere in the world. I suppose I was motivated by the extreme cold and the desire to stay out of it: if there was a synagogue in Edinburgh there would almost certainly be a Saturday morning prayer service taking place, which if nothing else meant I could do something with my morning that was not only different, but warm and dry as well.
So I called out to the taxi-driver: “Do you by any chance know if there is a synagogue in Edinburgh?”
The taxi driver half-turned his head towards me, and in a thick Scottish accent said: “Aye, there is, it is a fine old building on Salisbury Road about five minutes drive from here. I know because I used to deliver milk there as a boy; I made my pocket-money on that milk route”. He laughed: “But, that was forty-five years ago!”
Are you fucking kidding me? On the one day in a decade I consider going to synagogue on a Saturday morning, on a whim and in Scotland of all places, I had somehow managed to hop into a taxi driven by none other than the Edinburgh Synagogue’s former milk-boy.
The taxi driver dropped me off at the top of Salisbury Road, and after a short walk I found myself standing in front of the dour, nondescript brick facade of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation.
A security guard at the front gate looked me up and down suspiciously, and when I asked if I might be able to go in, he gave me the third-degree interrogation I have come to expect as de rigueur from synagogue guards the world over. “What’s your name? Are you Jewish? Where are you from? Do you speak Hebrew? Why didn’t you let us know in advance you would be coming?”
Eventually, satisfied that I was not an under-cover Al-Qaida operative a long way from home, the guard admitted me into the foyer of the synagogue and I followed him down a corridor. He took me briefly into the synagogue proper, a cavernous room with soaring high ceilings and lovely stained glass windows, yet which somehow felt quite austere and sombre.
Perhaps this was because it was empty – the guard said that the synagogue is hardly ever used nowadays except on high holydays, on account of it being large enough to hold 2,000 people. If used on a regular Saturday morning, where there were normally not more than two dozen people present, it would feel unwelcoming and cold.
He told me that instead of in the main synagogue, these days the prayer services were mostly conducted in a mini-synagogue of sorts at the back of the building, which is where he led me to next.
First though, we came to a small ante-room, where the guard handed me a kippah (skullcap), siddur (prayer book) and talit (prayer shawl). He watched me closely while I put on the kippah and talit, in what seemed to be a final entry exam of sorts: does this guy, who claims to be Jewish and wants to join in the prayer service, actually know what to do with these items?
Evidently I passed this little test, because once I was done he smiled at me and waved me into the small room, where perhaps fifteen mostly elderly men were praying, and about half a dozen women were sitting on the other side of a room-divider. The Rabbi stood at the front of the room, by the bimah (reading platform), from where he was leading the service. The women were all well-dressed and wearing formal hats, of the sort that you might normally expect to see at the races. For their part the men were all wearing suits and ties, around which they had wrapped their prayer shawls. Everyone there looked so, well, so British – prim, proper, conservative.
Which meant that, dressed as I was in jeans, sneakers, a wrinkled dress-shirt and a borrowed kippah, I stood out like a pair of dogs bollocks. Or perhaps, more to the point, I stood out like the part Israeli that I am, Israelis being renowned for what might politely be described as a slightly irreverent attitude when it comes to the subject of what to wear at a synagogue. (An Israeli relative, for example, turned up at my grandmother’s funeral service in knee-high boots, a mini-skirt and a mid-riff top. When it was pointed out that this was perhaps a touch inappropriate for the occasion, she looked at us all with great confusion: “but, everything I am wearing is black”, she said…..)
Suffice it to say that everyone turned around and noticed my entry, even though I had tried to slip in as inconspicuously as possible. The gabbai (service warden) came over to say hello, and helped me find a seat. Based on my appearance he had just assumed I was from Israel, and so was quite surprised to learn I was visiting from Singapore via London. He asked me about my accent, and I told him that I had grown up in Australia, at the mention of which he broke into a broad grin, and said excitedly: “Our Rabbi is from New Zealand, also!” Hmmm…. not sure how my Kiwi readers will feel about that comment, but I guess from the vantage point of Edinburgh, New Zealand may very well look like just an outlying province of Australia.
I sat in the synagogue for the next couple of hours. The service was conducted in the Ashkenazi (European-Jewish) style that I am most familiar with from my high-school days, so I was generally able to follow along and participate. As a guest I was honoured with being called up to the bimah to lift the Torah scroll and walk it around the synagogue at the conclusion of that week’s reading.
After the service, I joined the congregants at the morning Kiddush, a spread of snacks, tea and biscuits that is typically laid on by a synagogue after service, even if only for two dozen Jews in freezing Edinburgh. Which reaffirmed, lest there was ever any doubt in my mind, that a Jewish event of any type without food involved is nigh unthinkable. Of course, being in Scotland, a very healthy selection of Scotch whiskies was also on offer.
I chatted with the Rabbi and a number of the congregants, and learned that there are fewer than 500 Jews in Edinburgh – most Scottish Jews these days live in Glasgow, or have migrated to places with larger Jewish communities, like London or New York. I also learned that, whilst now in decline, the Jewish community of Edinburgh has a long and proud history, with documentary evidence that traces its origins back as far as the 1600s. The Edinburgh Synagogue itself was established in 1825, and so can boast of almost 200 years of continuous operation.
One person made the observation that Scotland is the only country in Europe that has never persecuted Jews, and someone else mentioned a book that proved the Scots were all originally Jews, anyway. A few days later I did some research, and found what was being referred to – a 2007 book called “When Scotland was Jewish”, in which two DNA scientists used their research to argue that a big chunk of Scotland’s history and culture comes from European Jews who fled persecution and ultimately made their way to Scotland. In the words of a co-author: “One out of every eight Scotsman in their kilts and attire and with their bagpipes and whisky is walking around on the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow and Aberdeen with Jewish heritage, and they don’t know it”.
Somehow in the conversation the subject of the rugby match that afternoon came up, and I said that on my previous visit to Murrayfield I had been struck by the Scots’ raw passion for the game, and also by the fact that so many men turned up to watch the rugby dressed in kilts. To which someone suggested that next time, I could do so too, as a member of “clan Jew”.
What the …?
It seems that a Rabbi in Glasgow with perhaps a bit too much free time on his hands spent more than a year designing a “Jewish tartan”, and in 2008 went to the trouble of getting it formally approved and registered with the Scottish Tartans Authority (there really is such an organisation, believe it or not).
Its colours are blue and white (representing the colours of the Scottish and Israeli flags) and gold, silver, and red (representing the Ark, the decorations that adorn a Torah scroll and the traditional sacramental wine). Plus it wouldn’t be a Jewish tartan if it hadn’t been officially certified as 100% kosher, made especially out of a non wool-linen mix (for various reasons mixing wool and linen together is not permitted under Jewish law).
Therefore, as a Jewish clansman, I would legitimately be entitled to parade around wearing the Jewish tartan. Please remember that next time you see me out and about in my kilt.
Towards the end of the Kiddush, I was in the corner of the room talking to a long-time Jewish resident of Edinburgh. We played the familiar game of “Jewish geography”, in which he asked me the usual questions about where I was from and my family background, and in the course of answering his questions I mentioned that my mother’s family were from Lithuania.
To my great surprise, he said: “Do you know that many Scottish Jews are also of Lithuanian background?”
Apparently, in the late 1800s when Jews were migrating from Lithuania in large numbers, the primary means of transport out was by sailing boat, and after leaving continental Europe the first landfall in the UK was very often Glasgow. For most of these Lithuanian Jews this wound up being a mere stepping stone, to the “New World” in America on en-route to South Africa. But some, having exhausted all their funds just to reach Scotland, and thus being unable to afford the onward journey, stayed put. Meaning that quite apart from sharing Jewish DNA and a Jewish tartan, these Scottish Jews and I really are clansmen, of the Lithuanian sort.
It was all too much for me. The next day I went online and purchased my plane ticket to Vilnius. I can read the tea-leaves as well as the next guy, and Einstein put it best when he once famously said: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”