Academic journal article Shofar

Wales's Orthodox Synagogues: Constructing Jewish Communal Places and Spaces

Academic journal article Shofar

Wales's Orthodox Synagogues: Constructing Jewish Communal Places and Spaces

Article excerpt

In May 1818, Swansea's Jewish community, then celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, laid the foundation stone for its first purpose-built synagogue. Erected in Waterloo Street, it served a population of around one hundred individuals and was the first synagogue to be constructed in Wales. This occasion was to be repeated many times over the next two centuries, not only in Swansea but in a number of other towns and cities throughout Wales. Altogether there were over two dozen occasions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when groups of Jews gathered together to consecrate a new house of worship in the country. The establishment of each one of these synagogues brought new Jewish communal places and spaces into being across Wales, and they marked important milestones, for their creation both symbolized the expansion of Judaism and instilled a sense of confidence for the longevity of communal Jewish life in the country.

Although interest in Welsh Jewish history has increased in recent decades, the history of Welsh synagogues has remained for the most part under-examined because scholars of British Jewry have long focused their attention almost exclusively on the history of English synagogues.1 While this is to some extent justified, for over 80 percent of the United Kingdom's synagogues were situated in England (in the wake of the great Jewish migration from Eastern Europe from 1881 to 1914) and English Jewry possessed some of the largest and grandest synagogues in the British Isles, this paucity of information on Wales is unfortunate for several reasons.2 Not only does it erase Welsh synagogal experiences from the overall picture of British Jewish material culture by asserting the Anglo-Jewish experience as the definitive, but it also fails to take into account the diverse and complex experiences of Jewish communal life in the British Isles more generally. Indeed, despite being a proponent of folding Welsh Jewish experiences into an "Anglo-Jewish" framework because Welshjewry "was never large" (a mere five thousand people at its peak in the early twentieth century), Todd Endelman once admitted that the Jews of Wales "were not, in a strict sense, 'English' Jews."3 Of course there is "a share[d] common history," as Sharman Kadish reminds us, but as this article will show, there was certainly plenty of "internal diversity" in British Jewish life also.4 We will come to recognize, for instance, that Welsh synagogues were not simply microcosmic or mirror-imaged versions of their counterparts found elsewhere in the British Isles, but they were also alternative communal places and spaces in many regards.

Yet, if British Jewish history has overlooked the significance of Welsh synagogues, the same is even truer with regard to Welsh religious history, where studies of Christian houses of worship, Nonconformist chapels in particular, form the lion's share of published studies on religious places in Wales.5 While this focus is certainly valid—the majority religious tradition in Wales between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Protestant Nonconformity—something essential has been missed, for synagogues have been a feature of the Welsh religious landscape for over two centuries.6

An examination of secondary-source material results in one in-depth book chapter on Welsh synagogues by Kadish, which, in its emphasis on style, aesthetics, and iconography, is largely architectural and conservationist in focus. This has resulted in a significant number of Wales's synagogues—those that have long since been demolished, were not purpose-built, or of little artistic and preservation merit especially—to be left in the shadows.7 Therefore, a nationwide study of Welsh synagogues cannot be truly achieved primarily through the lens of architectural history and heritage. To gain a deeper understanding of the history of Wales's synagogues, considerations of their architectural makeup must be entwined with their place- and space-making processes that encompass such factors as their construction, functionality, and materiality, as well as the social, religious, and economic contexts that made way for their creation and subsequent usage. …

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