Academic journal article Shofar

Exhibiting Jewish Culture in Postwar Britain: Glasgow's 1951 Festival of Jewish Arts

Academic journal article Shofar

Exhibiting Jewish Culture in Postwar Britain: Glasgow's 1951 Festival of Jewish Arts

Article excerpt

"Ikh bin an arkhiv," Ida Schuster said to me with a knowing look and impish smile, her arms spread wide, welcoming me to delve into the pages of her life.1 Indeed, I had come to visit Ida, who was soon to celebrate her one hundredth birthday, to guide me through her personal archive as a theater actor, director, and key cultural figure in the Glasgow community. I sat having tea at her dining table, enjoying the colorful descriptions of Glasgow's Jewish theater—both gaffes and successes—her reflections on her career as well as theatrical pieces and famous theater personalities. It was certainly more entertaining than any archive to which I had ever been. But I had come to her home not only to find out about her life in Jewish theater; I was also there to gain insight into one very grand festival of Jewish art that took place in Glasgow in 1951. Ida and I were to give a joint talk on the festival for a Jewish Book Week event in April 2018. Undoubtedly, Ida was to be the main draw—it is rare enough to find someone who can recall a century of life with such vivid detail, but she is also an engaging speaker and performer, a well-known personality, and an experienced and thoughtful interviewee. For me, the talk was a good opportunity to explore some of the wider theoretical issues that concerned my research and scholarship.

The Festival of Jewish Arts in Glasgow, Britain's second city at the time, was conceived as a response to, and timed to coincide with, the Festival of Britain in 1951. Held at Glasgow's McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street from February 4–25, the event showcased works from over fifty internationally renownedjewish artists, including Marc Chagall, Camille Pissaro, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Joseph Herman, and Yankel Adler. On display as well were antiquities dating back from the thirteenth century; there were films, musical performances, a display of two thousand books, and lectures by artist Joseph Herman and renowned philosopher Martin Buber. There was also a run of sell-out performances of S. An-sky's The Dybbuk by the Jewish Institute Players, in which Ida Schuster, a well-established actor in her thirties at the time, played the lead role of Leah to rave reviews.

From a wider Jewish cultural studies perspective, I was curious about the ideological motivations behind the event as a whole. I had many questions for Ida that afternoon: Why an art festival, who was it aimed at, what kind of art, why then, and why in Glasgow? And what does it tell us about what was important to the leaders of the Jewish community at the time? Admittedly, I also had an ulterior motive. And perhaps some of my questions for Ida were more leading than I had intended. I wondered, for example, if she felt that the festival—much like the wedding in the famed theatrical piece The Dybbuk—was haunted by the "undead" spirit of Jewish life cut short by devastation in the Shoah. Ida was quick to reject this tentative theory: "Academics like to put things into neat little boxes," she admonished with a wry smile. "That's not how it was."

How was it then? Like any historical event, it would be difficult to know exactly how the Festival of Arts was, and for whom it was intended. There is some evidence of its nature and influence: a program in the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre,2 one copy of the exhibition guide and art catalog at the National Library of Scotland, opening speeches and reviews in Glasgow's Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Echo,3 and brief mentions in a couple of other Scottish newspapers of the time. There are no critical analyses of the festival, little historical information, no extant record of attendance (although the newspaper does refer to one), no floor plans, and few people alive who remember the event, aside from Ida. In this essay, I offer the first sustained account of the 1951 Festival of jewish Arts in Glasgow by bringing together the available documentation and analyzing the perspectives it offers, as well as recording the testimony of one of the very few active participants who are still alive. …

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