I can bluff my way through the Welsh national anthem, count to 10 in Welsh, quote Dylan Thomas, and have a rudimentary understanding of the rules of rugby. I can also sing Adon Olam to the tune of “There’ll be a welcome in the hillside”, and it’s a tough call to know who to support in a Wales v Israel football match.
Being Welsh and Jewish is to be doubly different. A tiny minority in a hilly corner of the UK. “I didn’t know there were any Welsh Jews,” is something I’ve heard from Jews and non-Jews alike. Yet, wherever I go in the world, I meet people like me, both Welsh and Jewish.
Growing up in Cardiff in the 1980s, I had Jewish and non-Jewish friends. I didn’t feel socially deprived until I went off to Jewish summer camp and realised I was living a simple, often boring, provincial life. My girlfriends and I were fondly named “The Cardiff Girls” and it was actually quite cool to be different among the crowds from London and Manchester. But as the homeward-bound coach rolled down the M4, I would have a sinking feeling as it crossed the Severn Bridge, knowing that my connection to the outside Jewish world was severed until the next camp or reunion.
Today, there are small communities in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. However, Jews have been present in Wales since medieval times. Communities were established during the 18th century as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe disembarked in Swansea when they had hoped to make it to America. Soon there were Jews in Merthyr Tydfil, Port Talbot and many small Welsh towns such as Ynyshir, Pontypridd, Llandrindod Wells and Llandudno.
My own paternal grandfather, Joseph, arrived in the UK in 1890 with his family. When his father died six years later, he was put into a Norwood care home until, in 1918, he was sent to Cardiff as a tailor’s apprentice. There he eventually met his wife, the daughter of another Jewish tailor.
In my youth, Cardiff was a small community behaving like a big one. When questioned, I would proudly tell of the 500 families, an Orthodox community with two synagogues, a Rav and men with top hats, a Reform community with a shul of its own and several youth groups including Bnei Akiva, Study Group, JLGB. There was a thriving cheder, a nursery with a minibus pick-up service for the children, an old age home, mikveh and various charity groups with their endless fundraising and events. I remember slipping through the doors of our last kosher butcher shop Krotosky’s, now long gone, and standing in the sawdust next to my mother as she bought lamb chops. Nowadays, a mobile deli comes every couple of weeks.
I was the only Jewish child in my primary school class. My friend’s parents were respectful and knew not to serve me sausage and mash for tea. I am sure I was the only Jew they had met, but we got along fine.
At secondary school, the wonderful religious education teacher Mrs Evans, was incredibly supportive of the Jewish community. My friends always liked to hear about our Jewish rituals, and were jealous of our days off for yomtovim and leaving school early on Fridays. We made a colourful, intriguing crowd on yomtov, wending our way down Cyncoed Road to shul in our finery and hats, as our neighbours went about their regular lives. There were incidents of antisemitism, however, with synagogue windows smashed and the fatal stabbing of a prominent community member one Shabbat morning in the 80s, which shook us all to the core.
None of us opted to study Welsh at school, perhaps because we knew we’d leave Cardiff and, besides, we had cheder four times a week. I did manage to pick up a repertoire of Welsh hymns and Christmas carols after years of sitting outside the school assembly hall; as teenagers, we thought it was funny to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve at Llandaff Cathedral.
Growing up Jewish in Cardiff gave me a perspective that prepared me well for the world. I recognise that I had a secure upbringing in a place where poverty was a possibility I had seen with my own eyes — I had visited the once thriving mining villages that were limp and lifeless, hanging on to their memories with true Welsh pride.
Meeting a rowdy bunch of rugby supporters didn’t unnerve me, as I remembered my father’s words “Rugby is a thuggish game, played by gentlemen,” and so I figured that the supporters were largely gentlemen, too.
I also learnt to be resourceful when there was very little in the way of entertainment on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Growing up away from the metropolitan hub certainly made me more appreciative of what the wider world had to offer. That is why I always knew I would leave. I knew there was so much more to do, see and experience outside of my sleepy suburb and limited Jewish circle. I craved a wider Jewish social life and the excitement of London.
Today I live a stone’s throw from my best friend from Cardiff. It is strangely comforting to use Welsh words, and slip into a sing-song lilt when we talk about “the old days”. March 1st, St David’s Day, doesn’t pass unnoticed, and I can’t resist the first golden daffodils of the year, a true Welsh emblem — humble, yet upright and smiling.
I belong to two welcoming families, the worldwide Jewish family and the unique, unpretentious Welsh family that I share with Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Richard Burton and Catherine Zeta Jones. I am lucky to have several strings to my Welsh harp.