Jewish Glasgow

Feature by Willard Manus

(first published in 1998; revised in 2011)

We celebrated Israel's 50th anniversary by taking the high road to Glasgow.

The reasons were twofold: our daughter was graduating from Strathclyde University and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was showing an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in its only British venue.

Glasgow was familiar to me, thanks to my marriage to a native, but, after a ten-year gap, the city was full of surprises, starting with the Dead Sea Scrolls coup. London and Manchester had lobbied heavily with the Israeli Antiquities Authority to land the exhibition, but thanks largely to the efforts of one man--Henry Diamond--underdog Glasgow managed to cop the prize.

Diamond, now retired from many years as press officer for the Glasgow City Council, used his contacts with local, national and Israeli politicians to win the IAA over. "There's quite a story attached to the battle but it would take too long to describe it," he confided in an interview. "Let's just say that it was the biggest adventure of my life."

Diamond was the first person of his Russian immigrant family to have been born in Glasgow, which at one time was an industrial stronghold with a working-class character and outlook. In its heyday the Jewish population numbered 20,000 and was knit into a tight, cohesive unit. Almost all the Jews lived in the Gorbals, the infamous slums of Glasgow. Life was hard but there was warmth and people hadn't yet divided into different social strata, Diamond recalled. Occasionally someone became wealthy enough to buy a mansion outside the ghetto, a mansion being then defined as a house with interior sanitary arrangements; but for the most part the Jews lived, struggled and achieved communally. Only the poor know the real meaning of togetherness.

The Gorbals remained the hub of the Glasgow Jewish community until the late 60's. The Glasgow Jewish Board of Guardians, the leading welfare and cultural force in the community, had its headquarters there. Under its auspices, a vast range of organizations flourished--everything from a drama group, the Jewish Institute Players, to a girl's soccer team. The Jews of Glasgow even had their own bagpipe band!

"The Jewish Lad's Brigade still has some pipers," said Ralph Delmonte, a community activist. "They play the Hatikvah whenever they march. You can't play minor notes on a bagpipe, of course, so they have to compromise. It comes out pretty awful," he admitted with a laugh.

Over the years schisms began to tear the community apart. An ultra-Orthodox group of Lubavitchers made its presence felt, as did Orthodox and Reform groups. "It wasn't so much that they warred with each other," Diamond said. "They simply showed no interest in each other."

The push to achieve security and material wealth--and to escape the ghetto--also served to splinter the Jewish community. The swelling tide of post-war economic prosperity carried large numbers of Jews into other parts of Glasgow. The working-class settled in Govan Hill, the fairly well-to-do in Giffnock and Simshill, and the wealthy in Newton Mearns and White Craigs.

Then came the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The event was celebrated at an emotional meeting in Glasgow which climaxed when the doors of the hall burst open and a kibbutznik Palmach fighter strode through the audience.

"The scene which took place was indescribable," wrote a reporter in the Jewish Echo. "There was a roar from the hall which could not be stopped. The catharsis was complete. The rennaissance had at long last broken. There before the eyes of Scottish Jewry was the embodiment, living, real, strong, confident of the authentic traditional Jew. Glasgow Jewry could never, and can never, be the same again. The past was punctuated at this point of time."

More than half of the Jewish community eventually emigrated to Israel. The exodus caused the Jewish Echo to fold, along with numerous restaurants, butcher shops, markets and other businesses. The impact of Maggie Thatcher's attack on the welfare state was equally profound. Nearly all of Glasgow's nationalized industries --such as coal mining, ship-building and steel mills--were shut down, throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

As a survival technique, the city began to change its image. The Gorbals and other slums were torn down and replaced with modern housing. A renovation campaign was launched, with the grey, grimy city getting a bright new face. "Clean" industries were given incentives to set up shop; the city center was closed to vehicular traffic; museums, galleries and theatres were given subsidies to attract young, upscale professionals. In short, Glasgow was upgraded and gentrified.

Modern post-industrial Glasgow has a vitality and spirit that makes Edinburgh seem stodgy. Home to two major universities, attractive parks and thousands of Georgian buildings (everything from churches and town halls to private dwellings), a thriving downtown area and Scotland's most exciting night life, Glasgow has been massively regenerated. Jewish travelers may not be able to find many traces of Glasgow's Jewish past, but they will be rewarded in many other ways should they make the trip north.