A Time For Tartan

A Time For Tartan

Photography exhibit documents the lives of Scottish Jews.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

An older woman holding a worn volume of Robert Burns poetry looks up from her book to gaze directly at the camera, her face etched with deep lines that suggest a smile. She’s at a Burns supper — held all over Scotland and now around the world — to celebrate the life and work of the Scottish national poet on his birthday. This dinner is at the L’Chaim, Scotland’s only kosher restaurant.

Like most of the photos in Judah Passow’s exhibition at the Weill Art Gallery at the 92nd Street Y, the subject is decidedly both Scottish and Jewish. Passow spent two years traveling all over Scotland, including the outlying islands, to document the lives of Scottish Jews. He presents a Jewish kilt maker, a young woman celebrating her bat mitzvah at a liberal synagogue, an Orthodox wedding, a sheep farmer in the Highlands, college students at their annual Matzah Ball charity event and women making kosher haggis, the traditional Scottish dish, to be served at a Burns supper.

In an interview at the gallery, Passow compares haggis, made of sheep organs and a mash of ingredients, to kishka. “The world is divided into two types of people: those who eat haggis and those who will not,” he jokes.

The opening of the exhibition last week was timed to coincide with Tartan Week, a celebration of all things Scot in New York City. In fact, the marshal of this year’s annual Tartan Day Parade held earlier this month along Sixth Avenue, was Jewish kilt maker Howard Nicholsby, whose portrait is on the wall. Linda Fabiani, a member of the Scottish Parliament, told The Jewish Week that there’s a “quiet awareness” in Scotland of its Jewish community. She began her public remarks at the Y with a line from a Burns poem, “And would some Power the small gift give us/To see ourselves as others see us!” (from “To A Louse,” here translated into contemporary English).

Passow was born in Israel, grew up in New York and Philadelphia and now lives in London. His black-and-white photographs have an honesty and intimacy about them, with a strong sense of composition. He doesn’t pose his photos; rather, he takes the time to establish a comfortable relationship with his subject. “Sooner or later, I become invisible to them. They’ll be free to be themselves and I’ll be free to be myself as a photographer. That’s when the picture comes.”

“It’s about waiting for the moment to happen,” he says.

To photograph the shepherdess in Lochgilphead, he spent a week with her, living in her home and accompanying her and her sheep.

“This is the photo I wanted,” he says. He catches her in profile, with the flock of sheep behind her, under a painterly late afternoon sky. Her Star of David is around her neck.

Passow lets his subjects speak for themselves; his captions provide basic information. One wonders about the life of the shepherdess, with her rugged, wiry beauty,

“I keep asking questions with my photographs,” he says.

His work finding subjects was helped considerably by a recent communal study by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC). It estimates a total of 7,000 Scottish Jews, most in Glasgow.

In fact, the SCoJeC census identified a number of Jews in places like Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, where each one thought he was the last and only Jew; the small group now gets together regularly. Passow captures a man framed by the light of the Shabbat candlesticks that were brought to Lerwick by his observant mother in the early 1900s. For this Shabbat, he has dinner guests.

Passow’s photographs are “revelatory and familiar at once,” says Robert Gilson, director of the Y School of the Arts and curator of the gallery.

Some of the photographs — like a young woman on the morning of her bat mitzvah sitting in the front row of the synagogue rehearsing her speech before services begin, with her kipa at an angle and high heels kicked off, or the great kiss at a Jewish society party at St. Andrew’s University, or the caretaker of a synagogue in Aberdeen, the northernmost synagogue in the British Isles, setting up for Kiddush — have a universal quality about them. But the photos of a traditional Orthodox wedding, with the groom being hoisted in a chair and holding his kilt down, are unmistakably Scottish.

When asked what is distinctive about the Scottish Jewish community, Passow points to its independent spirit coupled with the responsibility its members feel towards each other.

“This is a community that despite its small size has a rich quality of Jewish life,” he says. “There’s a feeling in Scotland that ‘we are on our own up here, and we want it that way. Our survival depends on our own ability to keep our identity as Jews alive.’” He adds, “In England there are all kinds of national organizations and bodies and boards that regularly issue dictates. There’s none of that in Scotland. They reject that.”

“There is a real spirit of anarchy in Scottish Judaism. That’s what makes them Scots. They are taking control of how they express their Judaism.”

As the Scottish people are facing a referendum in September about whether Scotland should be an independent country, “They are consumed with the question of identity,” Passow says. “I walked in on that conversation. The timing was perfect.”

Michael Mail, who produced the exhibit, was born and raised in Glasgow and now lives in London. He explains that he wanted to do a project to recognize and celebrate the Scottish Jewish story. When Mail saw Passow’s exhibition about British Jewry — “No Place Like Home” — he was inspired to have him document Scottish Jewry. Mail, who works as director of development for the British Friends of the Hebrew University, raised funds from private philanthropy and from Creative Scotland, the national development agency for the arts. A book is coming out in the fall, with an essay by Mail.

The gallery at the Y was filled with Scottish-Jewish stories. In conversation, Rabbi Shaul Robinson of Lincoln Square Synagogue, who grew up in Glasgow, mentioned the “small but proud diaspora.” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue pointed to the photographs of the large Glasgow synagogue, Garnethill (where the wedding took place), where his grandfather served as rabbi. Rabbi Cosgrove’s aunt, Lady Hazel Cosgrove, was the first woman appointed a judge on the Scottish equivalent of the Supreme Court.

Two men dressed in matching tartan pants, Rod McIntosh and Frank Metzstein, came from London for the opening. Metzstein was one of the exhibition funders. His father arrived in Scotland in 1939 after leaving Berlin for London on one of the last Kindertransport trains; his mother’s parents moved from Odessa to Glasgow decades earlier.

McIntosh explained that they wear the tartan on “high days and holidays.” On the occasion of their civil partnership six years ago, McIntosh queried the chief of the McIntosh clan to see if his Scottish Jewish male partner could also wear the McIntosh tartan — permission is needed for any outsider to wear the plaid — and permission was granted. “As long as you accept him, we accept him,”

Guests at the opening were offered glasses of kosher single malt scotch from Tominantoul, a distillery in the Highlands. Jerry Dixon, a Scottish-Irish-Italian bagpiper who serves as pipe major for the Fraternal Order of Police, played in the gallery and on the sidewalk in front of the Y. Dressed in traditional attire, he told The Jewish Week that he has studied Jewish texts with rabbis in Crown Heights and feels “a spiritual connection to the Jewish community.”

“Scots Jews: Identity, Belonging and the Future: Photography by Judah Passow” runs through Sunday, April 27 at the Weill Art Gallery at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue.

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