This past weekend, my friend Leah and I decided to take a trip up to Scotland. While there, we met many very interesting people, and one in particular stuck out to me. His name was Ben, and he was a Scottish Jew from Glasgow. When I told him I was Jewish as well, he was very excited and we immediately started talking about trips to Israel, attending synagogue services, and other things we had in common. I asked him if there were many Scottish Jews, and he replied that he had met very few. I decided to research a bit further about this underrepresented sect of Judaism.
To my luck, one of the first pages that popped up on Google was “Scotland’s Jews: A Guide to the History and Community of the Jews in Scotland,” written by Dr. Kenneth E. Collins.
I have taken all of the figures and quotes from this online booklet. I a;sp found the Wikipedia page on Scottish Jews to be quite unhelpful, as the actress Alicia Silverstone was considered to be a Scottish Jew, having been born in Scotland to Jewish parents, but raised in the United States. While she’s talented, to consider her as a Scottish Jew is a bit of a stretch.
The first Jews in Scotland were primarily from Germany and Holland, however during the mid-19th century, Jews from Russia and Poland migrated over to Scotland and became the predominant of the Jews who presided there. While at first there was an equal distribution of Jews in Glasgow and Edinburgh, most were attracted towards Glasgow. Most Jews in Scotland spoke Yiddish, a hybrid language using German and Hebrew. Migration in Scotland was not all that huge until almost the 20th century, where there were about 2000 Jews in Glasgow. This number has only gone up to 6,400 Jews, as of the 2001 census.
Something that was instilled into my brain and heart from a very young age was the act of giving “Tzedakah,” which means to give charity and help those less fortunate than you. Scottish Jews have the same principle, and even when they were less fortunate, they always tried to give back. “The Jewish response to the arrival of poor and sick newcomers was the formation of a network of charitable and welfare institutions.” They were very supportive of self-help as well, urging immigrants to create a life for themselves. While there weren’t very many Jews, they knew they needed to make a huge impact on the community in order to be accepted into Scottish society.
This seemed to work quite well, because local authorities became more and more welcoming of the growing Jewish population, providing English classes and supporting a “mikvah,” a purifying Jewish bathhouse, within the Gorbals Bathhouse. Christian missionaries donated money to aid the needy Jews and to help get them on their feet as they entered Scotland. And the Jewish community gave back as well: it was becoming involved in all aspects of Scottish life, helping out in communal organizations, from hospitals to creating orphanages.
You don’t hear very much about Scottish Jews today. I personally didn’t even think that there were as many as 2,000, let alone 6,400. They definitely have made a very lasting impression, as many of the organizations they created in the 19th century are still continuing to do fine work, not just for the Jews but for Scots in general.
Glasgow Garnethill Synagogue, the first synagogue for Jewish immigrants in Glasgow, Scotland