by Cai Parry-Jones, author of The Jews of Wales: A History
As a non-Jewish Welshman I’ve often been asked by people why I decided to embark on a research project on the history of Welsh Jewry. ‘Surely, you must have some Jewish ancestry? No? So why the interest?’ The answer is simple – I am passionate about the history of my country and the historical experiences of individuals that make up that history – be they Jewish or non-Jewish. As a native Welsh-speaker, I also feel I am naturally drawn to the histories and cultures of other minority groups in the United Kingdom, often finding myself comparing their historical experiences with the Welsh linguistic situation. With little published on the history of Jews in Wales, I knew that this was a story waiting to be told and one that also deserved to be shared with both the academic and non-academic reader alike.
The recent publication of The Jews of Wales: A History by the University of Wales Press marks the end of a seven-year chapter for me. The book originated as an AHRC funded doctoral research project that I conducted at Bangor University between 2010 and 2014 (under the supervision of Professor Nathan Abrams and Professor Andrew Edwards). The project was the first study of its kind to examine the history of Welsh Jewry as a geographical whole and drew heavily on oral history interviews (conducted by myself and others and archived at St Fagans) that now allow us to appreciate what it was and is like to be a Jewish person in Wales, from the perspective of the people themselves.
With a background in Holocaust Studies and Public History, I must admit I knew very little about the history of Welsh Jewry when I first embarked on my PhD research. As a native of Cardiff, I was aware of an Orthodox synagogue existing in Cyncoed and that Jews formed a part of the city’s rich and diverse multicultural makeup. What I didn’t know, and soon came to realise, was that the history of Welsh Jewry extended beyond the Welsh metropolis. It existed and continues to exist all over the country, with over 30 organised Jewish centres having been established in Wales between 1768 and 1996. While the numbers of these organised centres have declined significantly in the latter twentieth century, Wales continues to be home to five synagogues in the early twenty-first century.
The reader will gain many things from reading this book. An appreciation that the history of Welsh Jewry is a national story, rather than solely a south Walian story. An understanding that Wales’s ethnic and religious landscape has been diverse for centuries and that individuals from different ethnic and religious groups have played a pivotal role in shaping both Welsh and wider British society, both culturally and politically. The reader will also come to realise that relations between non-Jews and Jews in Wales were complex and not always harmonious, and will gain an appreciation that Welsh Jewry, like other ethnic and religious groups, was and is extremely diverse – it’s not a unified entity. The book contains a wealth of historical information, most of which will be new to those more versed in Welsh-Jewish history.
Public engagement is a central part of my research ethos and one of the most rewarding aspects for me as a social historian is hearing from individuals who are connected in some way to the people I research and write about – it really does bring history alive! I wrote this book with the genealogist in mind and I hope that it will serve as a useful guide and finding aid to readers conducting family history research, as well as those wanting answers to long-unresolved questions.
Cai Parry-Jones is Curator of Oral History at the British Library.
If you would like to buy The Jews of Wales: A History, please follow this link: http://www.uwp.co.uk/book/the-jews-of-wales-hardback