Jewish Edinburgh

The Jewish cemetery in Sciennes

Where, you might ask, is Jewish Edinburgh?  You might think first of a synagogue; after all, this is where Jewish gatherings commonly take place.  There is a synagogue (as it happens), an imposing 1930s building in Salisbury Road on the southern edge of the South Side, and this tells you something of the history and changing fortunes of the Jewish community in Scotland’s capital.  But of Jewish life in Edinburgh today, it will tell you only a part.  Like Jews as a people, Jewish Edinburgh – in the sense of present-day Jewish life in the city – is scattered.  Synagogue apart, there are no buildings to point to where Jewish life happens on a daily basis.  No; you have to be on your toes (literally and metaphorically) to find your way round – and to – the various Jewish gatherings and activities which form the living substance of Jewish cultural and religious life in Edinburgh today.

If it’s historic Jewish Edinburgh that interests you, there is now an online guided walk created as part of the celebrations to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first formally-established Jewish community in Edinburgh (and Scotland) in 1817.   (See http://curiousedinburgh.org and download the app).  From the earliest (pre-community) known burial site of a Jewish family in the 18th century (below the glass-fronted new restaurant on the top of Calton Hill); round Closes in the Old Town where early settlers lived cheek-by-jowl with other inhabitants of the cramped old streets; past the site of the old Kleinberg’s bakery where people today still recall the sweet smell of Arthur Kleinberg’s freshly-baked challah wafting out each Friday until his retirement in 2005; pausing at the tiny old cemetery – a little jewel, lovingly maintained by volunteers – in Sciennes House Place; to the Meadows and the bench on which Saturday afternoons in the 1920s saw the gathering of the ‘Yiddish Parliament’ immortalized by David Daiches in his memoir Two Worlds; with this guide in hand you will get a flavour of Old Jewish Edinburgh.  

But for Jewish Edinburgh today, you have to keep your ears and eyes alert.   Where do you look for it?

Being Jewish, of course, is a complex mix of the religious, the cultural and the family.   For experiencing the rhythmic weekly celebrations of Shabbat and the annual festivals, each with their distinctive prayers and (of course) food, there are two faith communities. The orthodox one meets regularly in the synagogue in Salisbury Road.  The progressive community, Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community, true to form, is peripatetic.  Its various meetings for worship take place throughout the year either in the community centre at Marchmont St Giles Church, or in the more formal surroundings of St Mark’s Unitarian Church in Castle Terrace.  You’ll need to go online to www.eljc.org for details.  Either community will give you access to all the communal social events – the quizzes, the Open Days, the communal meals, the fundraising ceilidhs, the film nights – that take place throughout the year.  To hear cantorial singing at its finest, come along to any of the monthly services held by ELJC when Rabbi Mark is in residence, and you are unlikely to be disappointed.   To see the permanent exhibition of Jewish historic Edinburgh, it’s Salisbury Road you want: contact the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation at www.ehcong.com to make arrangements.

Sometimes, what you may be looking for is subtle: not physically obvious, but present in the fabric of the city’s life.   Edinburgh is now world-famous for hosting the biggest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, every August.   What is less well-known is that the person who conceived and founded the EIF was a Jewish refugee, Rudolf Bing.  Bing left Nazi Germany for the UK in 1934 and after the war worked to develop a festival that in celebrating international culture would also contribute to international understanding and reconciliation. You can see a commemorative plaque to Bing, and to the many other Jews who have contributed to the city’s cultural and social life, in the foyer of the Usher Hall.

And then there is “The Lit”.  The Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society, now 130 years old and one of the oldest continuous literary societies in the country, offers a pot pourri of talks and discussions on anything and everything considered of Jewish interest or relevance.  History, music, art, politics, mathematics, genetic research, legal ethics, famous figures, all have featured in the Lit’s programme of events that take place nine or ten times each year.  Open to anyone interested, whether Jewish or not, the Lit meets at the community centre attached to Salisbury Road synagogue on (with rare exceptions) Sunday evenings between the months of October and May.  The coming year’s programme (2019-2020) is expected to feature talks by writer Bart Van Es speaking on his award-winning book, The Cut-Out GirlThe Guardian’s former Middle Eastern correspondent Ian Black, on Israel’s relations with the Arab world; and a session on Jewish humour.  See www.ejls.org for details of all programmes, past and present.  At £15 per year (current rates) for all sessions, including the statutory tea, coffee and kosher cakes and biscuits, it has to be the bargain of the century! Finally, watch this space: there are plans afoot to establish a Jewish Cultural Centre in Edinburgh.  With funding applications in the pipeline, a site still to be agreed and a full business plan to be developed, it will be a while before this emerges into the full light of day.  Once it does, Edinburgh will have a physical focus to house and celebrate the multitude of Jewish activities and contributions to civic life that will form part of a thriving and diverse Jewish Edinburgh.