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Here We Are!

CRS members – some past and some present.

These entries come from a book we published several years ago which is called Hineni, which means Here I am.

DAVID COHEN

I was born and grew up in an extremely concentrated Jewish community in Montreal, Canada. Pretty much all the kids on my street were Jewish and my high school was at least 90 per cent Jewish. Mine was a Jewish upbringing but not a religious upbringing.

I did my first degree in economics in my native Montreal. I came to Edinburgh University in 1972 as a graduate student, and I’ve been in Wales since 1986. I am now a professor of health economics at the University of Glamorgan and live in Llantrisant.

I married a non-Jew, and we didn’t do anything religiously because neither of us were religious, but after our first child was born we decided we’d like our new daughter to have an identity and so my wife, Margot, went through conversion.

According to the Orthodox, kohanim like myself are not allowed to marry converts, and the rabbi said Margot could not convert because the Beth Din wouldn’t accept our marriage. So we went to the Reform Synagogue in Cardiff and they welcomed us with open arms; and Margot went through Reform conversion and that’s how we became part of that community.

I didn’t practise religion at all; hadn’t really since my bar mitzvah and didn’t want to be involved in Margot’s conversion, but the rabbi was having none of that. I had to attend the conversion classes Margot went to, and that’s what got me back in contact with Jews. We were welcomed into the community, and when they found out I could read Hebrew reasonably, I got immediately sucked in to do more. I often lead the services as well as read from the Torah.

I don’t really have faith as such. I very much want to identify with the community, though, and the synagogue is the focal point. I’m very glad that I joined Cardiff Reform. Had my wife not said that she wanted to have a religious identity, I’m certain I never would have come into contact with the community, and my life has been richer for having done so.

I feel Welsh because Margot and I made an effort, and we also support minority languages in general. I’d hate to see Welsh die out. We raised our children through Welsh-medium schools so our children are Welsh speakers and very strongly identified Welsh, and Jewish sort of. When I was growing up in French Canada they didn’t teach us French properly in school, so when my kids had an opportunity to be bilingual through a state school I jumped at it. They were the only Jews in the history of their school before or since. I don’t think either of my children ever felt any degree of anti-Semitism among their peers, certainly not among the staff, and they were accommodating because we’d take them out of school for the High Holidays, for example. There was never any challenging of us as parents about why we were doing that.

In Montreal Jews were more open about their Jewishness; whereas here in Wales you don’t make as obvious a statement about the Jewish part. I’m very conscious of the fact that virtually all the people that I know here know very little about Judaism; whereas I just assumed that everyone who I spoke to in Montreal did know a lot, so the experience really couldn’t be more different.

The enormous difference was living in an area where Jews were the majority to living in area where we are almost unique.

 

 

LOUISE FULLER

I grew up in Rhodesia in the ‘50s, and had an amazing childhood among the wide open spaces. You never had to worry about anything; you could roam the streets. My father worked as part of a security system on the railways in the middle of a game reserve and it was absolutely fantastic. There was many a day we couldn’t go to school because a pride of lions had gone to sleep on our veranda so we couldn’t get out the house. I was very naughty and used to get into a lot of trouble, especially when we used to get elephants to charge and things like that.

It was a good way of growing up. The only thing we didn’t like was the fact that when you went to bed in the evening you had to take your mosquito net because of malaria, and the nets would have to be tucked into your bed every night so the snakes couldn’t crawl up them. You couldn’t put your shoes on the floor because there was a possibility that you’d get up in the morning and there’d be a scorpion inside them. So although it was a very careful way that you were brought up, it was also very carefree. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got very good memories.

I did my nursing and worked in a large hospital in Bulawayo, and it was in the pathology department that I met my husband Barry, a policeman. We moved to Johannesburg and apartheid was really very noticeable. We didn’t want our children to grow up against the colour bar and wanted them to make up their own minds without being indoctrinated. We decided to come to the UK, to Cardiff, where my father was. The first thing we noticed was how green everything was, and the smell of the fresh grass, because in Johannesburg everything was dry and dusty – we couldn’t get over it.

We’ve been members of the Cardiff Reform Synagogue for a long time. There’s such a friendliness in the community and they just accept you. A lot of people have had hardship but they don’t talk about it, and certainly in our synagogue everybody makes the most of what they’ve got. I’ve got so much going on in the synagogue. I’m a council member. I also head the Care in the Community team, as well as caring for the elderly. I’m head of the chevra kadisha, and we make all of the shrouds by hand. I used to run the Judaica shop, and I’m also on the school visits team and have been on the catering team since the year dot. What I’m contributing to the Cardiff community I like to think will put the next generation in good stead to carry on.

When I want to go out and have an argument on my own with God I’ll go and fly fish. And the surprising thing is I can go and fish during the week and come back with maybe one or two, but the standing joke is I fish on Friday and God provides for the Sabbath. I come back with maybe eight or nine trout, and half the community end up getting the proceeds because I just give the fish away. For me, Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a way of life; and it’s a way of life that I feel, and can understand, and it’s the way I want to live my life.

 

 

VERNON JENKINS

 

Vernon Jenkins was not Jewish, so why include him on our Website? Simply because he was our organist for over 67 years and probably attended more Services than anyone else, He rarely missed a Service over all those years. He definitely was part of our Synagogue family.

I was born in 1928 in Gorseinon, an industrial town west of Swansea. I was fortunate to have been brought up in a small cottage on a fairly large plot of land so my childhood was a very happy one. My mother, who was a very influential lady, made me have lessons on the piano from when I was about eight years old and to attend the local church as a choir boy. I began organ lessons and, in effect, became the church organist about the age of thirteen. In 1955 I began to play organ for the Cardiff Reform Synagogue and I’ve been there ever since. It’s been a happy relationship.

I’d been an organist for a number of years so I didn’t have any fears about being able to do the job ultimately. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that the service was so different from a Christian service and the fact that it was fifty per cent Hebrew. I hadn’t really thought that through and also hadn’t bargained for the High Holiday services. The other services were small pie compared to the Day of Atonement. I mean, I never thought I’d be getting involved in anything as long as that. My best memories of the High Holiday Services are with Ian and Fiona Karet because they were amateur singers but they were good-quality amateurs and they knew their stuff. They were synagogue-going people and involved in Jewish choirs, and everything was a piece of cake with them. I had no rehearsal worries of any kind and we just clicked immediately.

I think Rabbi Graf was particularly fond of music himself and he expected high quality deliveries. There are tunes that I love in Jewish music that I’d never have known about and are completely different music from anything I’d ever played in a Christian context. I’ve had the big advantage of being introduced to a whole repertoire of music that I would not normally come across ever, some very lovely music, and also the advantage of playing for professional singers. In a church, hymns will change every week, but in a synagogue you’ve got one set of pieces that you play week after week. You might say that to be a synagogue organist must be an exceedingly boring job but I’ve never found it so. Occasionally, new tunes and accompanying new words have been introduced. We’ve got a few tunes for Adon Olam, for example, and I tend to rotate those a bit. But apart from that things haven’t changed that much.

I’m not an outgoing person, or certainly wasn’t at an earlier age, so I would have been a bit shy about pushing myself into situations. So for many years I didn’t commune really with others except Rabbi Graf, of course, and the singers that came from time to time. But not for many years did I even go down to a kiddush, but in recent times I’ve got to know people more so I’ll sometimes go and have a chat and have developed a friendship with many people there. It’s been a very slow process, really, but I feel most at home in the synagogue and so did my wife, and we didn’t regard that as an accident. We felt that we were naturally close to the Jewish community and very happy there.

 

 

MARIAN LANE

My parents were both German Jewish. They had to get out of Germany; they came over to this country in 1935, leaving behind other members of the family. I had an older sister who was born in Germany and I was born in London in 1940. We later moved to Wales, first to Aberdare and then Cardiff. My dad was a dental surgeon; he had to re-take his exams up in Edinburgh. Life was difficult and they had quite a struggle to get started.

There were many things that I didn’t understand as a child; my parents very rarely talked about Germany and it was a time when you just didn’t ask questions. In my twenties I managed to get some information out of my mother, found out where she was born, and I had an opportunity in the 1960s to travel to Gleiwitz, now Gliwice, in Poland.

I had relatives in Argentina, but another thing that upset me was that everybody else had aunts and uncles and cousins around and I didn’t know what an aunt and uncle was. I had my sister and I had my grandmother. Hitler murdered so many of our people but he also took away our identity, my identity, and I feel that very strongly, even now. In 1961 I saved up and went to Argentina and visited the relatives I’d only ever written to. I loved Argentina; I loved being with my aunt and uncle.

We were brought up Orthodox because that was all there was. We kept the festivals, and the Sabbath day was Saturday and not Sunday when everything was closed. The Jewish community was quite large because of all the immigrants that had come to the Valleys. The synagogue was a large room upstairs in a little house in the middle of Aberdare. Those are my earliest recollections of being Jewish and being slightly different to everyone else.

I was very happy in school at Aberdare. I was a tomboy; I used to climb walls and go where you’re not supposed to go. It was idyllic; you were surrounded by countryside and there were very few cars around so you were able to play on the roads. I was not happy coming to Cardiff. I really missed the community atmosphere. I mean, obviously it grew on me but there were many things I didn’t like. We eventually joined the Reform synagogue which had just started and that was totally different. It was mixed seating, which was quite odd, and the pronunciation of the Hebrew was different. I don’t know that my father ever got used to it but I certainly settled in. I quite enjoyed cheder and it was like a big family.

I was very interested in travel and worked my way up. I was awarded a managership of a Co-op travel shop in the late ‘60s, which was very, very unusual for a woman. I had been going out with a non-Jewish fella but I couldn’t let go of Judaism – I couldn’t marry out. I married a Jewish man called Geoffrey in 1975 and we had two children.

I started getting interested in Judaism again in my late twenties. I think it was always there but something just started again and I started teaching cheder. Friday night I keep at home whenever I can, lighting the candles, whether my children are here or not. But I go to synagogue on a Saturday morning because the Torah scrolls come out and sometimes you’re called up, and it’s by your Hebrew name, which includes your father’s Hebrew name, and that’s a link to my past that’s important to me.

 

JOHN MINKES

I was born in London in 1953 and grew up in Birmingham. My father was a university lecturer and my mother a teacher so we were comfortably off. I went to a small private primary school. There was no prejudice or discrimination, and the school invited a local Jewish minister to provide religious instruction for the Jewish kids.

My family were middle-of-the-road Anglo-Orthodox. We belonged to Singers Hill, the big Orthodox synagogue. I had my bar mitzvah there, but if we went to shul, which wasn’t very often, we usually went to the local old-age home, a ten minutes’ walk away. But in those days everybody belonged to the shul and the social life was either family or other Jewish friends. My parents thought when they had children they’d give them a choice, which seems to have worked out, because I’ve been both ways religiously in the course of my life.

In my teens a friend invited me to join Jewish Youth Study Group, and I also started going to shul regularly and got more into things. Until a year after graduating from university I was quite strict in my religious practice. I believed that God was watching what I did and I had to do what I was supposed to. After I went on a summer course in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, I realised that there were attitudes within ultra-Orthodoxy that were unacceptable to me. I also came to feel that God didn’t follow what was happening from day to day, and things started to be less significant, and once you’ve stopped doing one thing it’s a bit like dominoes – it was easier not to do the next thing.

I studied economics at Cambridge, but then trained on a social work course to become a probation officer because it combined helping people and thinking about crime and why people did it. I worked in that field for nearly twenty years, but now I teach criminology at Swansea University. I think if I hadn’t gone into probation and been a social worker I would never have learnt to talk about feelings, and I learnt (eventually) to speak my mind a bit more and to be firm with people.

I’ve also been involved with amateur theatre for many years. I began by prompting, and after I joined Telstars in Cardiff, I did two or three technical things, but then like most people who say, ‘strictly backstage’ I got the bug and now more often than not I’ve been on the stage and enjoy it. But it’s also been a very important part of my social life as Telstars is a small and tightly-knit group.

I’ve always been interested in football and went to my first game when I was ten. I’ve had season tickets at Watford, Swindon and now Cardiff, and at one point I was going to over fifty games a season. Now that I’m married I’m cutting down on the non-league grounds!

When I moved to Cardiff I joined the Reform synagogue. I didn’t hesitate because I liked many of their policies and Reform is nearer to what I believe. Through Rabbi Elaina I got to know people. I’ve led services, have been on council, and am currently the Treasurer. I want to keep some element of tradition going, and Reform makes it much easier for people to belong. Although I have a residual belief in God, what motivates me now is that I like the familiarity of the liturgy, and the company and the sense of belonging. It’s a nice community and it’s a pleasure to go.

 

 

MATTHEW SOLOMONS

I grew up in Castleton, outside Cardiff. My father was a photographer and then a self-taught antique dealer. He was a true Cockney from the East End of London and came to Cardiff after his family was killed in a wartime bombing raid. He met my mum when she was performing in Cardiff’s New Theatre as a singer and dancer with a touring troupe called Harry Lester and his Hayseeds.

Growing up in the countryside, I remember playing hide and seek, using the centre reservation of the A48 as my hiding place. I went to high school in Bassaleg where I was the only Jewish person. It was very hard and I was bullied. My Jewish social life as a child revolved around a non-religious Jewish youth club in Cardiff called the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade(JLGB), which was part of a national organisation and a bit like Scouts.

It’s smaller now but it was a great network. I met my future wife, Karen through the JLGB when she was in the Bugle Band Company in London. My son, Jack and daughter, Emma, go to the Cardiff company of the JLGB and they love it.

I decided not go to university after I left school because at the time I didn’t think I was clever enough. My first job was at Marks and Spencer and then I had a number of jobs. I once worked for AB Electronics in Rogerstone and was an assistant manager for Victoria Wine in Cardiff. I now work with Canute Transport; they run Wilkinson’s distribution. I drove for them for four years and I now work within the distribution centre.

My father was one of the founding members of Cardiff Reform Synagogue. Mum converted to Judaism and she embraced it. She used to take me to synagogue every Saturday, and both she and Dad were highly involved in the community. Dad was a synagogue warden for most of his life and often led services. Mum was on the Ladies Guild, which did a lot of charity work and raised money for the synagogue. She also used to lead services with songs because of her history of singing. She had a fantastic voice. Dad played guitar, and later in life both he and Mum used to play in the Jewish old-age home in Penylan.

I do go to synagogue but I’m not really observantly Jewish. I feel Welsh because I was born in Wales and it’s my nationality but this doesn’t mean I don’t feel Jewish. I’m definitely a Jewish man—it’s my core. I’ve got a Jewish family and I do follow Jewish traditions. I’m more cultural; I love the social side of it.

We’re a tight community; the sort of community that would do everything and anything for each other. I’d like us to get bigger. I’d like my children to settle here. I’d like lots of Jewish people to settle here – it’s a wonderful city. We’ve got everything in Cardiff you could want. But in all honesty, if my children want to be in a larger Jewish community then that’s where they’ve got to go. I do picture them ending up in London if they meet the right person. If my children move away and the community dwindles even more where will I be? Only time will tell.

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