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About a Bar Mitzvah Boy

Tuesday, February 10, 2004 by

Continuing to build upon its impressive reputation, BBC Scotland’s EX-S documentary team produced another lovely little gem in this, the tale of Sean Winston, a Glaswegian Bar Mitzvah boy. Previous EX-S credits have included absolute belters of programmes on Glasgow’s Orpheus Choir and Gordon Smith, the renowned “Psychic Barber” amongst many others. Both these programmes were typical of the EX-S style – a worthy, interesting subject matter that was handled with care, attention to detail and produced with considerable style. This particular show cemented – firmly – the reputation of EX-S as a high quality provider of interesting, entertaining and captivating slices of everyday life that, when properly produced, translate effortlessly into marvellous, first-class documentary programmes.

Given the shrinking Jewish population in Scotland, this was a wonderful window of opportunity for EX-S to probe deeper into the roots of the community and frame it in the context of the Bar Mitzvah Boy. Whilst this was achieved on a quite superficial level, I would criticise (grudgingly) the makers for not having a broader remit and fleshing out the narrative considerably further. However, I take on board that this is asking the makers to completely revise the nature and central core of the programme, so perhaps I am being overly critical.

It is often said that Scotland is the only European country never to have shed Jewish blood. Indeed, it is claimed that Jews arrived in Scotland through a misunderstanding; East European Jews fleeing persecution disembarked on the East coast of Scotland believing, thanks to unscrupulous ship captains, that they had arrived the USA! Yet, despite this relatively benign relationship between Scotland and its Jewish population, the number of Jews living in Scotland has shrunk from around 14,000 to half that today. Indeed, there are fewer births of Jews in Scotland today than there were 100 years ago, when the community was smaller. Consequently, the small communities struggle to maintain their educational, cultural and religious identities. This aspect of everyday Jewish life was eloquently touched upon in the scenes featuring the charming Rabbi Mendel, a man whom the Jewish population of Glasgow should offer up their praise to God for. Watching him comb the telephone directory for Jewish sounding names was both winningly comical and slightly heartbreaking. Indeed, it recalled a memory of an old primary schoolmate whose family was visited by the local priest – who was thoroughly disappointed to learn that that, despite the surname Daly, his family was unblinkingly Protestant. Plus ├ža change.

Above all, Mendel’s enthusiasm to maintain the Jewish identity and tradition in his Glasgow flock was quite inspirational. Manifestly, he managed to transfer his love of his faith, his responsibilities and his way of life such that boys, such as Sean, were clearly enthused by his passion and commitment. Listening to Sean’s eldest brother proclaiming his loss of faith in the wake of his grandparents’ deaths was moving, as was his brave admission that he hoped Sean would not follow his example. But the overall joy of the programme was the manner in which Sean and his family clearly enjoyed being both Jewish and Scottish. This was a programme that clearly conveyed the nature and necessity of ethnicity and nationality and underscored that the two were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, another aspect that could, and should, have been touched upon during the show is the philo-Semetic bond between Calvinist Scotland and its Jewish immigrants. As Dr Kenneth Collins, chairman of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities has stated, the experience of Jewish immigration to Scotland has been – for both parties – a fairly fruitful experience. As Collins said “Jews had relatively easy integration which, compared to modern asylum seekers, was positively idyllic.” Also, greater play (and explanation) could have been made of the difference in attitudes to their respective Jewish population between Calvinist Scotland and Episcopalian England – but once again, a minor grumble.

This was a family who knew where they were from and who they were. The mother, who came across as a more robust, feistier, Jewish version of Lorraine Kelly (now there’s an improvement!) was no stereotypical, Jewish dominatrix figure. She was the star of the show, holding all and sundry together, and, ultimately, evinced as a proud mum of a young boy stepping into manhood. This was a woman who seemed to be in perpetual motion. The fulcrum of family life she corralled her charges with irascible resolve and ran the show without being overly controlling. Unusually for an insight into an ordinary family, there were little or no histrionics, no mugging to camera and no playing up. This seemed only to underline the ordinariness of the family and further enshrine them in the viewers’ hearts. But what of the boy himself, the Bar Mitzvah laddie? Well, Sean sailed through his rite of passage barely batting an eyelid. Under the tutelage of the ubiquitous Rabbi Mendel, the wee man was calmness personified as he took his first, momentous steps into adulthood. This was a confident young man who showed no sign of being phased by the occasion or being confused by his identity. At times, his laid back style was verging on the comatose.

Another plus point for the programme was the commentary from Kaye Adams. For too long, this type of gig would automatically been offered to the sour faced, and equally sour voiced, Kirsty Wark. Adams has a gentler, more pleasing tone as well as naturally being more gifted in terms of being able to convey the bigger picture to the viewer. For me, Kaye Adams deserves more acclaim and gorgeously measured, laconic performances like this on her CV can only improve her reputation. And thumbs up to the editing team – as ever, quality stuff.

Hopefully, the success of this show will inspire the team to look at other figures from Glasgow’s Jewish community deserving of similar treatment – Hannah Frank, Susan Singerman and Michael Tobias spring to mind. As do several prominent members of Glasgow’s Sikh community. Beyond the pathetic playground nonsense of the Catholic/Protestant divide, Glasgow has, as a vibrant, dynamic city, much to recommend it in terms of cultural diversity and social inclusion. Programmes such as this serve to underline the positives and give hope for the future.

If future Glaswegians are as well balanced as Sean Winston and the city’s religious leaders as committed and empowering as Rabbi Mendel, then we can look forward with hope and certainty.

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