LONDON — “My impression is that anybody who is walking around saying the Scottish Jewish community is going to disappear doesn’t know what they are talking about. This is not a community in decline,” says renowned photojournalist, Judah Passow. “This is a community that’s reinventing itself.”
Passow’s comment comes from having spent two years traveling across Scotland’s major cities and towns, as well as the country’s remote isles, taking photographs to document its Jewish community.
The result is an engaging exhibition that captures the complexity and diversity of Scottish Jewish life. It examines the community’s ability to acknowledge its heritage, live in the present and build for the future.
From a whisky analyst leaning on a barrel at a distillery in Fife to an elderly woman at a Burns Night event in a kosher restaurant (Burns Night is an annual commemorative tribute to the life and works of Scottish poet, Robert Burns, where traditional Scottish food and drink is consumed), Passow’s pictures convey a narrative that is intimate, celebratory and, at times, unexpected.
As with so much of Passow’s work, his pictures leave the viewer keen to know more about the stories that lie behind the images.
The exhibition, entitled “Scots Jews,” was initially launched two years ago at a reception at the Scottish Parliament. Since then it has toured extensively in America, Canada and Eastern Europe. It is currently showing at the Jewish Museum London, where, for the first time, the 80 black and white digital pictures are projected onto four large screens, rather than appearing as prints.
Each screen displays a group of 20 images that have been deliberately paired up and which fade and dissolve in continual transition.
“Images have been juxtaposed for their emotional tension or for their visual conversation — images that speak to each other on a photographic or graphic level,” Passow explains.
Speaking to The Times of Israel at the museum ahead of the show’s opening, Passow says that as well as preventing crowding around the photographs, the onscreen image quality is “stunning.” A book of the photographs, “Scots Jews: Identity, Belonging and the Future” has also been published.
There have been Jews in Scotland since the 1700s — a community that has, according to the project’s website, prided itself in the way it quickly blended into the fabric of Scottish society, while at the same time maintained its traditions. A Jewish census, conducted shortly before Passow began working on this project, revealed that the community numbered 7,000, the majority living in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow with the rest scattered in isolated areas.
The idea for “Scots Jews” came from a Glaswegian expat in London, Michael Mail, who approached Passow having seen his 2012 exhibition “No Place Like Home,” which examined what it meant to be British and Jewish in the UK. Mail wanted to create a similar pictorial portrait of contemporary Jewish life in Scotland. Passow told him he would do it if Mail could raise the money. Six months later, “the phone rings and he says, ‘When can you start?’” Passow says, laughing.
London-based Passow admits to knowing little about Scotland until he embarked on the project, having only visited once since his move to the UK from the US in 1978. Israeli-born and American-educated, he has been working on assignments for American and European magazines and newspapers for over 35 years. He is a winner of four World Press Photo awards for his coverage of the Middle East conflict and his work has been published and exhibited worldwide.
The census data proved to be essential in helping him with his meticulous research. “I put a huge map of Scotland on my office wall and started drawing lines and putting pins in where people were. What I was looking for was interesting people, people doing interesting things,” he says.
His journalistic instinct and curiosity led him to seek out Jewish life in unexpected places, such as the practice nurse on the island of Yell — the northern most Scottish Shetland island, which, he points out, is closer to the arctic circle than it is to London. He discovered that she was a Jewish single mother.
“Now for me, as soon as I heard that, bells started ringing, lights started flashing, so I put a pin in there,” he says.
He also found a landscape photographer on the Isle of Skye.
“I thought this could be really interesting, one photographer approaching another,” says Passow. “Me, coming from photojournalism, spending time with a guy who lives in total isolation, photographing nothingness, landscapes. What would these two photographers have to say to each other, in terms of understanding what each needed to give the other in order to make this experience work?”
Quite a lot it seems, as the two men have become close friends.
Passow says that all of his pictures are a function of spending at least a day, and in most cases, as much as a week with his subjects. But sometimes getting the picture that he wanted happened at unlikely moments as it did with Dee, the shepherdess in the Scottish Highlands. He had arranged to stay with her for four days but within an hour and a half of arriving, he had his shot.
“I got up there late afternoon and after I dropped my bags we went down to the bottom of the field to bring the sheep back into the enclosure,” he says. “On the way back, I notice this incredible Scottish sunset. She’s walking towards me, talking, and I suddenly [saw] that she’s got this Star of David around her neck and in the fading sunlight a shaft of light just picks out this necklace. I look through my camera and it was one of those frames where everything [just] falls into place. I took a picture and told myself that this might work.”
‘She’s got this Star of David around her neck and in the fading sunlight a shaft of light just picks out this necklace
An essential, and obvious, part of the project was the inclusion of photographs that expressed iconic Scottish identity and tradition with Jewishness.
“These kinds of photographs are, in a way, almost visual clichés but necessary,” says Passow. “I accepted that and I was very conscious in the 18 months I was taking these pictures that I needed some of these visual clues. The challenge of taking that kind of picture became how do you lessen its cliché factor and cloak it in some kind of journalistic legitimacy? The fact is you need a couple of [pictures] that have a kilt and a kipa in the same frame.”
He refers to a picture of a guest wearing a tartan kilt at a Jewish wedding. There was also a bagpiper present, he says, pointing to where he was standing, just out of the frame. But Passow decided it was too much to include him.
Despite the extensive access to the community that Passow received, there were also challenges such as arriving somewhere and “not seeing a picture.” One such place was Findhorn, an alternative, spiritual community on the coast, home to a couple of Jews. After two days he admits to not being moved, as a photographer, by what he saw.
“It was a long way to go and leave empty handed and I was beginning to get both angry with myself for making such a bad choice and frustrated at wasting my time and money out of the budget for going there,” he explains.
He was spending time with the director of Findhorn’s art gallery, taking pictures that he describes as being ordinary and very conventional. They were sitting in a room that was used for life drawing, which had a skeleton there for the artists’ use. His subject had to leave the room to take a phone call but when he came back, he had to walk along the wall by the skeleton.
“It occurred to me that this was going to happen, so I picked up my camera and waited for him to come [in] like that. I just popped the shutter and that was the picture. And I knew then that if I packed up my gear in a hurry I could probably make the next train to Inverness and get out of there!” he laughs. “It was like trying to wring water out of a rock. It just wasn’t working.”
Passow believes that one of the factors that has ensured the survival of the Jewish people, is “this fundamental capacity for reinvention.” This is now happening inside the Scottish Jewish community, he says.
“We are constantly asking ourselves [as Jews]: Who are we? What are we? Where are we? What do we have to do to make sure that who we are and what we are is consistent with the times in which we live. This is fundamental to Judaism. [In Scotland] there’s a new generation asking these questions of themselves: What kind of Jews do we want to be?”
He spent a couple of days in the one Jewish day school — Calderwood Lodge in Glasgow — where, according to Passow, about 40% of the pupils are Muslim, due to dwindling Jewish enrollment. Muslim parents are fully aware that their children will receive a Jewish curriculum and are all for it, he says. His shot of two girls, one Pakistani and one Jewish, studying Torah together is particularly striking.
“Their grandparents would not have had anything to do with each other,” he adds.
For Passow, this photo signifies the future.
Passow was permitted to join a school trip to Amsterdam — part of the school’s Holocaust curriculum — with students aged 11-12, where he produced, he says, one of the more haunting — and one of his favorite — pictures to come out of the project. The photo was taken just after the children had visited the Anne Frank House and Museum and their facial expressions evince pure shock.
But the overall impression of this exhibition is of a Jewish community that is vibrant and happy. Passow agrees.
“It is at ease with itself,” he says. “It is very happy because it’s prosperous, educated and well established. It’s like the tartan. They are inextricably woven into the fabric of Scottish life. [But] it’s got a firm grip on the present and an eye on the future.”
“Scots Jews: Photographs by Judah Passow” runs at the Jewish Museum London until February 12, 2017. www.tartanarts.com