Growing Up in Dundee


Sonia Fodor

Last Passover I fulfilled the promise that we used to make to ourselves every Passover in my youth - "Next year in Jerusalem." I stood and touched THE WALL and I seemed to feel the vibrations of two thousand years of my history, I really felt connected. I didn't put a little piece of paper between the stones, with a prayer, but I thought of my mother to whom I owe most of my feelings of joy and pride in my heritage. She had left it too late to go to Jerusalem and had always urged me to go while I still had the strength. When I went to tell her about it a few weeks later she was dying, and past understanding.


We had been raised on stories of her 'stetl', her little village near Odessa, within the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were allowed to live; how as a baby she had been dropped into a bath of very hot water and she still bore the scars; how her elder brother had been sitting outside the cottage eating a crust of bread when a wild pig tried to sieze it and dragged him up the lane until he was rescued. We often used to look at the marks on his wrist, just to have a frisson of horror; how she, aged about three, and her mother (the others had gone some time before) had joined a group on a dark night that was being guided through No Man's Land, the Grenitz; how my grandmother with her heavy bundle and a young child had gone too slowly and lost the group but found them again, resting under a tree; the ship from Poland that took them to Scotland; the slums of Glasgow (the Gorbals) where Mum only spoke Yiddish until she went to school; the terror she felt in that grim building.

Equally from my father we had stories of his having been a street urchin in the Gorbals, playing truant from school to help in a theatre, painting the scenery and working as a "singing chocolate boy". Then doing card tricks in a fairground until the First World War gave him the opportunity to join the Jewish Brigade, ending up in a concert party in Palestine and Egypt.

These family legends are mixed up with my upbringing as an Orthodox Jew in Dundee, before and during the Second World War, mixed up with hilarious stories of my grandmother's mistakes in English, such as the time she spoke about the Mother Superior as "Madder Shapiro". I have a memento of the past: the little black basket with buckled-on lid in which my grandmother carried out her important family papers from Russia.

I felt connected with Europe and Russia. For one thing, I was shown letters and photographs of cousins in the Russian village which arrived regularly, written in Yiddish in the cursive Hebrew script. From the time of the war we never heard a word, and presumed that they had all been killed in the german advance. I have a vivid memory of a European, an old Polish man with a long beard, a wide hat and a long black coat who came to our house for a meal in the 30s. each family fed him in turn as he went round collecting money for a synagogue in Poland. Schnorrer is the name of his occupation. Then during the late thirties and the war, we heard stories and met refugees from the continent. One of these was a Viennese lady who said she had been an opera singer. My mother was determined to do something to settle her in life and arranged a shidduch. She spoke to a middle-aged Jewish widower in our community and he was willing. He had a house and a small business, and the lady was willing. Mother made all the arrangements for the wedding, invited the whole crowd, provided food. I don't think it was a success because shortly after the wedding neither of them spoke to her again.

My life was all family warmth and togetherness. We lived in the same building as my mother's brother, his wife and two daughters. My other aunts and cousins spent summer and Jewish holidays with us and that included my invalid grandmother. At school my sister and I were excluded from R. E. which meant that we sat at the back of the class and tried not to listen. It was very frustrating when no one knew the answer except me and I couldn't put my hand up. After school from the age of six I went to cheder (Hebrew School). As our congregation was very small the same man was rabbi, cantor, teacher, ritual slaughterer and I suppose that he circumcised the baby boys too. Sometimes in the middle of a Hebrew lesson he would be interrupted by a man bringing two squawking hens. The rabbi would excuse himself, go round to the back yard, we'd sit in frozen horror as the squawks rose to a crescendo then there would be an abrupt silence, and the lesson would continue. Once a year we had a visit from the Chief Rabbi of Scotland, Dr Daiches from Edinburgh, who examined us in Hebrew knowledge, while all the parents sat at the back, willing us to do well. There was a famous occasion when the leaned doctor asked an infant "What does your mother do on Friday night?" expecting the answer "She lights the candles", but this boy said "She gives me my bath."

Our week was, of course, different from that of our Christian neighbours. On Thursdays and Fridays there was furious cleaning, polishing of brass candlesticks, massive fish frying on Thursday evenings, cooking of the kosher meat, and by sunset on fridays there would be a white tablecloth, gleaming candles, a loaf of special bread under a special cloth, and Mum in her Sabbath clothes bensching lecht, saying a prayer as my sister and I stood by, waiting for our weekly kiss. Then Dad would come home from the synagogue and we had the ceremony of kiddush, with a little sip

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