Newbridge and District Jewish Community
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The small Jewish community of Newbridge, in the Ebbw Valley, was just one of many congregations in south Wales which came into existence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They arose mainly from the immigrants who came from eastern Europe, especially from Russia. Like much of south Wales, Newbridge and district had grown with the development of coalmining, which attracted incomers from various places, a number of Jews being among them.
An important initial difficulty in attempting to recreate the history of the community arises from the absence of any documentation originating with the community; there are, for example, no minutes of meetings, nor lists of members. The main source of information is the weekly Jewish Chronicle (henceforth JC) which contained some reports of the activities of the community; but their publication depended on someone in the district having the interest and ability to inform the newspaper and that varied over time. There were also, in the JC, notices of births, marriages, and deaths, about those who were living, or had lived, in the district. The Censuses of England and Wales, 1891-1911, were used, sometimes to add to the information from the JC, and otherwise one could select people on the basis of country of origin (notably Russia), their names – typical Jewish forenames such as Mendel, Chaim, and Yetta for women, as well as surnames – obvious ones like Cohen and Levy, characteristic Jewish ones, like Goldberg, as well as those ending in –sky and –ovitch. However, one has to be aware that Biblical names (Moses, Isaacs, for example) were commonly used by Welsh people, especially non-conformists.(i)
Sometimes one is helped by the fact that the enumerators for the Censuses up to 1901 occasionally stated that the entry was a Jew, an unofficial annotation. More often, at the 1911 Census, the forms, completed by the individual household, also irregularly stated ‘Jew’ or ‘Hebrew’ or that the language spoken was Yiddish. On this basis one can build a database.
The important words in the title are ‘and district’, for although the congregation centred on the town of Newbridge, it included people who lived in other places in the Ebbw Valley. It was explained by Hermann [Harry] M. Jaffa, who was born in Newbridge and lived there for many years:
In fact Jews living in other places in the valley were probably associated with the congregation. Such places included Cwmcarn, Crosskeys, Risca, and Pontymister. However, they may have been part of another congregation in the valley, in the northern part, at Brynmawr and Abertillery, or possibly at Newport, on the coast. On the other hand, there was a small number of Jewish families living at the southern end of the neighbouring Sirhowy valley, at Blackwood, Fleur-de-lis, and Cwmfelinfach. These places were very near to Newbridge which was the nearest Jewish congregation to them, and it is known that the son of at least one family, the Dayans, of Blackwood, was bar mitzvah in the Newbridge synagogue in 1918.(iii) Now it is true that one member of a Fleur-de-lis family informed me that his father never mentioned attending synagogue, and his father had his bar mitzvah at home. Indeed, services were also held in people’s houses as at least one published report of 1916 demonstrated.(iv)
In his useful reminiscences, H. M. Jaffa, said that there was no fixed location for a synagogue (despite references in the JC to a synagogue). Instead:
There is a photograph of the old coaching inn which is described as having been a synagogue in the ‘latter part’ of the nineteenth century. (v) Perhaps that was the location of the Hebrew Classes, sometimes used for services. The first published report of any sign of communal activity was in 1905, concerning the holding of High Holyday services in Abercarn in 1905, conducted by Rev B. Ginsburg and H. Lewis of Cardiff. Mrs B. Tanchan and her son ‘provided the articles required for the services’. The location, according to the JC, was ‘Sloch Gobalth Hall’, a name unknown in any language but eventually found to be a misprint for ‘Cloch[Bell] Gobaith[Hope]’, a temperance hotel.(vi)
The population was small, but large enough to maintain a congregation but it is not at all clear when it came into existence. One, unsatisfactory, clue was given in 1920 at a meeting to present a ‘candelabra’[sic] to Mr and Mrs B. Roskin. Mr Roskin was described as having ’founded the congregation, and has been President for the past twenty-five years’. This would place the date of its existence from 1895. On the other hand, the obituary in 1935, of Israel Levy stated that he had been a founder of the congregation, but he did not arrive until the early years of the 20th century, the birth of his first child in the district was in 1908.(vii)
As far as I have been able to establish, the first Jews in the district arrived in the 1880s, the decade in which the first Jewish children were born there. Admittedly, there is a stray reference in 1852 to a Mr Goodman of Newbridge who, at the laying of the foundation stone of Merthyr Tydfil synagogue, proposed the health of the Rev Dr Adler and the clergy.(viii) But he is an elusive character and I have been unable to find any more about him. Three decades later, in the 1880s, there were at least 3 families, those of Simon Orman, a draper and outfitter, Benjamin Roskin, another outfitter, and Phillip Tanchan, a pawnbroker. Interestingly, there were other families in south Wales with those surnames, and I imagine they were connected in some way. One was Aaron Roskin, usually called Harry, a brother of Benjamin, who, according to his Naturalisation Papers, was in Abercarn from February 1894 until January 1898 when he moved to Newbridge.(ix)
In the records of the 1911 Census, where one can read the submissions written by a member of the household, Simon Orman stated that he had been a resident of Britain for 31 years. His first child, Hyman, was born in 1883 in Blaenavon, but his next two children, daughters Bessie and Amy, were born in Abercarn in 1884 and 1885 respectively. His other 8 children were born in various places, mainly in the Ebbw Valley, before the family eventually settled at Crosskeys. Roskin was younger and his first child was born in the district late in 1890. At the 1891 Census Orman was living in Abertillery and Roskin in Abercarn, where also another early family resided, that of Phillip Tanchan, a German-born pawnbroker. This last family had arrived some time after their only child, a son with the curious name of ‘Ceckele’ was born in Abertillery in 1884.(x)
One unusual feature is that whereas a common account of Jewish settlement in the provinces often begins with pedlars in the countryside who then open fixed shops in the towns, there appears to be no evidence that this happened in the Newbridge district, although, oddly, Simon Orman, was described as ‘Drapery Traveller & Shopkeeper’ at the 1901 Census. His son, Hyman, and two other men were ‘Hawkers’. However, he soon moved away, to Abertillery where the family were located in the 1891 Census; but according to the London Gazette’s reports on his bankruptcy he was at Blaenavon, in the next valley, in 1895, while his wife and family were at Crosskeys, which apparently became their home.(xi)
The Table below gives the population figures from the Censuses.
Jewish Population, Newbridge & District, Censuses 1891-1911
The 1891 figures relate to only two families, those of Benjamin Roskin and Phillip Tanchan; Simon Orman’s is not there, being at Abertillery at the time of that Census. The total in 1901 consisted really of 5 families – Benjamin Roskin, in Abercarn, (6), along with Harry Roskin his brother) (5), Simon Orman, now in Risca (11),Lachman Moses (Risca) (6), and Bertha Tanchan (widow of Phillip), Abercarn(2). These 5 families accounted for 30 of the total of 36, and the remaining six were all men, five of them unmarried. Incidentally, one of them was Harry Orman, who had an 18-year old boarder named Joseph Rabenowitz, born in Newport, who was recorded as speaking both English and Welsh. But that was not the whole story. Another Orman family, headed by Nathan Aaron, was temporarily in the district, his son Solomon Barnet Orman being born at Crosskeys in 1897 and daughter Flossie at Pontymister in 1899. Indeed his business address at the time of his bankruptcy in 1900 was The Emporium, Pontymister. But early in 1901 he was in Cardiff where his son Julian was born.(xii)
Quite clearly, the main build-up of the community took place in the first decade of the 20th century, increasing by 67, from 36 to 103. That total of 103 comprised 6 families which had been there in 1901, totalling 27 members including 5 children born after 1901 ; 13 new families, with 66 members; 2 families of 1901 married after 1901, amounting to 8 members; and fwo single men.
We know from naturalisation records that Isaac Levy (Kivelewich) arrived in Llanhilleth in 1904. The births of their first children give the approximate date of arrival: Max Jaffa, 1904, Isaac S. Marks 1904, Mendle Stone 1907, Morse Gershon 1908, Israel Levy 1908, and Philip Samson 1910. Again, there were other people who were there temporarily in the inter-census period: Barnet Joseph Cohen and family (his son Herman Harry Cohen was born at Cwmcarn to Annie, Barnet’s wife, in 1903). Barnet died in 1910. Abraham Barnett had a first child in Crumlin in 1910 which died and they moved on to Cwmbran. And there was Myer Rabenowitz whose wife Charlotte died in 1905.
Three immediate impressions are provided by this table of occupations. First is the doubling of trades, eg Draper/Clothier, and Oufitter/Boot Dealer. The second is the concentration on clothing of various kinds. Third, there is an absence of some traditional Jewish immigrant trades in Britain – Tailoring, Picture Frame making, and Glazing. However, Solomon Field, a Furniture Dealer in 1911, becomes a Picture Frame Maker in a Directory of 1914. It is noticeable that Pawnbroking appears only three times; the three Assistants were all members of the family. However, Harry Roskin was a Boot Dealer in 1901 and, in Liverpool in 1911, was a Draper and Hosier. Yet in 1906 he was fined £10 for taking goods into pawn from under-age girls.(xiii) Similarly, Benjamin Roskin who, in 1911, is a Boot Dealer in Abercarn, turns up in the 1914 Directory as a Pawnbroker there and also in Llanhilleth.(xiv) Although there is not much peddling, one notices the combination of shopkeeping and peddling (travelling). One can only assume that the man of the family went travelling while his wife and perhaps children looked after the shop. Wives are in any case sometimes described as ‘assisting in the business’.
BIRTHPLACES, FROM THE CENSUS 1891-1911
Table III shows the birthplaces as given in the various Censuses. The importance of East European immigrants is clearly demonstrated although by 1911 some of them had been settled long enough for 47 children to have been born in Wales. One wife, Marcus Barnett’s Florence, was born in Newport and three other immigrants married British-born wives – Phoebe Stone (Mendle), Raie Orman (Harry) [Dublin], Esther Samson (Phillip).
News items about the congregation are scarce in the early years and lacking in details. In 1906 at a Zionist meeting in Cardiff, it was reported that ‘Representatives of the Zionist Societies’ of various places in south Wales were present, including Crumlin and Newbridge. One wonders if such societies existed or the reporter meant that individuals from those places had attended.
Certainly a religious congregation came into existence in the years before the First World War. There is, unfortunately, a mistaken reference to a minister in 1911: at the Second Conference of Anglo-Jewish Ministers, held in that year, an apology for absence came from I. Rabinowitz of Abercarn. In fact he was at Aberavon, the newspaper got it wrong.(xv) Similarly there were Hebrew Classes before 1915, the year of a presentation to Harry Roskin on his moving to Liverpool, when it was stated that he had founded the Classes, obviously some time before 1915.(xvi) Meanwhile there were signs of social activity. In 1912 Newbridge hosted meetings and a dance of the Western Valleys Jewish Literary and Social Society. The meetings included impromptu debates, a paper read by its President, H. Roskin, on ‘Jewish Nationalism’, and another, by a man from Aberdare, on ‘Intermarriage’.(xvii)
There were more reports of activity during the war. The first newspaper reference to a synagogue in Newbridge was in 1915, where the bar mitzvah of Bert, son of Benjamin Roskin, took place. In 1916 a Marriage Secretary for the Newbridge synagogue was appointed and a Deputy (S. Instone) to the Board of Deputies was elected. Surprisingly, there is a solitary reference in 1916 to the ‘Abertillery and Newbridge United Hebrew Congregation’, which advertised for a shochet and ‘competent Teacher to teach according to the Chief Rabbi’s methods’. The salary was £2.10s per week with perquisites. Applications were to be made to a man in Abertillery. Nothing more is heard of this united congregation. A few months later Rev P. Freedman was elected minister; he lasted three years.(xviii) The last reference to him in the JC was in May 1919, as the author of an obituary to Mrs Orman, wife of Simon, and perhaps it was his impending departure which led the Newbridge congregation to approach the Newport congregation to affiliate. The proposed terms have been published.(xix)
It is known that at least four men served in the armed forces during the war. Two of them were sons of Simon Orman and had been regular soldiers; Reuben was in the South Wales Borderers and Zephania in the Middlesex Regiment. The latter was in India at the time of the 1911 Census but both were in Britain at the start of the war and both were in the British Expeditionary Force. They were both killed in action in October 1914, Zephania, aged 22, on the 14th and Reuben, a Sergeant, aged 26, on the 31st.(xx) The third and fourth men survived. One was Nathaniel, a son of Benjamin Roskin and, having started in the ranks in the Manchester Regiment, was a Second Lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry) and then Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. He was commissioned early in 1917 and wounded in the summer of that year. The fourth man was Phillip Munitz who was also in the Home Guard in the Second World War.(xxi)
Meanwhile the congregation was active. The JC reported in January 1918 that the pupils of the Newbridge Hebrew and Religion Classes, under the supervision of Rev P. Freedman, were examined, the examiner expressing ‘his great satisfaction and appreciation of the rapid progress and advancement the children had made in their studies’. In the same month it was decided to form a Zionist Society for Newbridge and District, which then held some meetings at which people read papers. At the end of 1919 the congregation was represented at a conference of several local congregations in connection with the newly-acquired burial ground of the Brynmawr congregation. A Joint Burial Committee and a Building Committee were formed.(xxii)
Members of the congregation were active in collecting funds for various objectives. This had a long history. One of the first items in the JC referred to a contribution from E. Tanchen[sic. presumably Philip Tanchan] of Abercarn to the widow of a deceased man in Pontypridd. Rosie Barnett of Crumlin sent in 5 shillings to the ‘Penny Dinners’ Fund, in 1904, and six people sent £3.15s 6d to the ‘National Tribute for the Children of Dr Herzl’.(xxiii) During the war more was done as a congregation. Thus at a meeting in 1915 in the Hebrew Schoolrooms, £8.0s.9d was collected, to be distributed at 75% for the Relief of Polish Jews and 25% for the Relief of Jews in Palestine. In January 1916 members who were present at a meeting promised to subscribe monthly to the fund for Jewish Victims of the War in Eastern Europe. Such contributions continued until after the war, including, in 1924, £20 from the Newbridge Hebrew Congregation for the Zionist Fund Keren Hayesod.(xxiv)
There are occasional references in the 1920s to a congregation in Newbridge – a late one being a reference in 1927 to representatives of various congregations, including from Newbridge, at the funeral of Isaac Brest of Brynmawr. But it is interesting that Mrs B. W. Morris of Newbridge was a collector in 1933 for the Central British Fund for German Jewry, soon after the advent of Hitler.(xxv)
Presumably there were still some Jews in the neighbourhood from whom she could collect, but among the majority of news items, which were of births, marriages, and deaths, were those noting those events affecting former residents, now living or having lived in such places as Ebbw Vale, Hammersmith, Brixton, Liverpool, Bristol, and Newport. In some cases women left as brides for grooms living elsewhere, but equally there were several people who lived all their lives in the district. Isaac Levy died in Llanhilleth in 1935, and Max Jaffa died in Newbridge in 1946.(xxvi)
There was no report of a closing ceremony for the Newbridge and District Hebrew Congregation; it seems to have petered out, sometime in the late 1920s. In that regard it merely anticipated, by many years, the fate of much of Welsh Jewry.
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