Leavening the mass: Flora Rossen, Scottish Jews, and diversity in the diaspora

A question that has driven much of my research is: Who belongs to the Scottish diaspora? I am often struck by the ease with which historians have used the term ‘diaspora’ to unconsciously create illusions of community among migrants from the same country, but who otherwise share very little in common. In my research I have found that the Scottish ‘diaspora’ is far more diverse than typical accounts represent it to be, and that its boundaries, rules, tensions, and contradictions are rarely interrogated. I have tried to record some of this diversity along the way, and here is one of those stories:

Flora Rossen was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1894 and her family migrated to Australia in 1912, when Flora was 18 years old. Her family, the Gold family, was Jewish and they had fled Europe in the midst of poverty and the anti-Jewish pogroms of Tsarist Russia. Significant Jewish migration to Scotland did not begin until the late-nineteenth century. In 1891, there were approximately two-thousand Jews in Glasgow; a decade later, there were closer to seven-thousand living there. While some Jews in Scotland belonged to a well-established professional community, by the turn of the century a poorer section of the Jewish population was made up of mostly Russian Jews fleeing from poverty and anti-Semitism.

The Aliens Act of 1905 limited the number of poorer migrants, but Jews continued to arrive in Scotland in large numbers in the years before the First World War. Around ten-thousand Jews travelled via Glasgow in the year of 1908 on their way to North America. Some remained in Scotland, and by the outbreak of the First World War there were close to twelve-thousand Jews in Glasgow and around fifteen-hundred in Edinburgh. Away from the two major cities, from around 1894 a smaller Jewish community was formed at Greenock due to its location as a port city on the route to North America, in addition to other communities at Ayr, Falkirk, Inverness, and Dunfermline in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Sholem Dovid Gold left Russia for Britain in 1890 to escape anti-Semitism and the anti-Jewish pogroms that caused the emigration of nearly two-million Jews from Tsarist Russia between 1880 and 1914. His wife, Faigel Salochvitch, fled with him and found work in Edinburgh. Four years later, their eldest daughter, Flora, was born. With the birth of their daughter in 1894, the family relocated to Glasgow. Flora’s father changed his name, due to a fear of anti-Semitism in Glasgow, to Samuel David, and set up business in the Jewish section of the city.

Flora, her parents, and her younger siblings Rosa and Lewis enjoyed what she described as a comfortable, middle-class life in Glasgow. At home, Flora’s parents spoke a mixture of Yiddish, Russian, and English; while Flora could understand them, she herself only spoke English, and her education in Hebrew extended no further than the alphabet. She attended a Protestant school until the age of 14, and had fond memories of attending synagogue and going to schul on Saturdays. She and her family’s friends were Jewish, as were her father’s customers. Flora’s mother, Faigel, kept strict kosher in Glasgow.

In 1911, due to his bronchial asthma and the harsh Scottish winters in Glasgow, her father decided to relocate to a warmer climate. He was originally set on immigrating to New Zealand, but, by coincidence, upon landing in Sydney for a stop-over a former customer from Glasgow offered Samuel Davis a job managing a tailoring factory; he arrived on a Saturday and began work on the following Monday. Flora and the rest of her family followed in 1912. Her father eventually went into business for himself hawking silk, and purchased a house in Bankstown for his family.

While Flora did not remember having many close friends, a number of her relatives had also settled in Australia, and there was a significant Jewish community in Bankstown from the turn of the century. In 1913, her father and her uncle, Abraham Schultz, collected funds and built Sydney’s first suburban synagogue in the suburb. In 1918, at the Bankstown schul, Flora married Avram Elazer Rossen, a 23-year-old watchmaker who had emigrated from Russia during the war. Their son, Ben, was born one year later. About five years later, around 1923, tragedy struck and Avram died in an accident in his watchmaking workshop.

Flora kept on and maintained the business, employing another Russian watchmaker to complete the work. She sent Ben to a Catholic boarding school with one of his Jewish friends, but the boys were eventually prohibited from attending schul on Saturdays and were castigated for their lack of interest in Catholic masses. Flora Rossen became a member of the Council of Jewish Women (CJW), which later became the New South Wales branch of the National Council of Jewish Women in Australia in 1929, in the early 1920s. Dr. Fanny Reading founded the CJW in 1923, and she became a household name for many Jews in Australia. Its ideals included loyalty to Judaism, support for the creation of an Israeli state, and service to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes in education, philanthropy, and the needs of women and children. Flora, who could now speak fluent Yiddish, worked with Fanny Reading – who spoke no Yiddish – in the 1930s assisting recently arrived Jewish migrants from Germany, Russia and Poland.

Her close involvement with the organisation, which was staunchly dedicated to the nascent Zionist cause in the 1920s and 1930s, reflected the deeper convictions of her Jewish identity. Asked if she considered herself a foreigner in Australia, Flora said: “Well my parents were foreigners but of course I was born on English [British] country. Therefore I didn’t consider myself but I still had foreign blood in me just the same. I always knew that I was Yiddish, I never denied it you see.” For some of the Rossen’s neighbours in Bankstown, Jewishness was almost entirely novel. Flora related the story of a conversation with one neighbour:

So we were talking for a while and I said ‘Mrs Hastings, I see there you have your Bible. You know, it is a little different to mine.’ … She says, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Well, I belong to the Jewish race.’ She says ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m of a different religion, I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew’. She said, ‘I’ve never heard of that before, Jewish.’

Flora Rossen’s story reflects cultural and ethnic diversity among Scottish-born migrants to Australia in the early twentieth century. Her parents and husband were among 1802 other Russian Jews living in Australia, although her own story is especially remarkable because there were just 46 Scottish-born Jews in Australia in 1911. These narratives are indicative of the frequently opaque nature of immigration statistics. Many individuals emigrated from Eastern Europe to Scotland in the 1890s, spending time there before the journey to Australia. Although these migrants remain hidden in incomplete British and Australian immigration records, the early twentieth-century censuses hint at their existence.

In 1911, while over four million persons in Australia were British subjects by birth (including being born in a British possession), 34,923 were British by parentage – that is, they were born to parents who were British subjects – and 52,951 had been naturalised. The majority of those who were British by naturalisation were from European countries; over half were born in Germany alone. Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Russia, and Norway also made considerable contributions.

Of those who immigrated to Britain and then to Australia, such as the Rossens, Eric Richards notes that they “introduced a continental flavour to Australia”, and they “gently helped leaven the mass” of Australia’s white, British population. In total, 48,305 British subjects were born in continental Europe, 13,322 were born in Asian countries, 4878 were from Africa, 9364 were born in North and South America, and 2420 were from Polynesian islands. Of course, not all of these came to Australia via Britain, but there is no reason to discount the probability that a significant number of migrants from Britain were born elsewhere, especially North America and Europe.

The story of Flora Rossen and her family certainly indicates that Europeans in Scotland were represented within the Scottish cohort of migrants from Britain. More importantly, her Jewishness was at the forefront of her identity, and became increasingly so as she grew into an adult. Through her family and the Jewish communities in both Glasgow and Bankstown, she developed an identity as a Jew – not a Scot – and her language, religion, and community involvement reflected this sharply, as did her personal relationships, which were by-and-large with other Jews. What we see in this example is how identity is often self-ascribed; though Scottish-born, Flora maintained the boundaries of a different diaspora.

Simply being born in Scotland did not, and cannot, form the basis of a distinct community or diaspora; the very nature of identities means that heterogeneous diasporas cannot be reduced to ‘one thing’. A spectrum of experiences in the margins of the diaspora was connected in complex ways to cultural and political variations among the Scottish-born. Group solidarity organised along national lines was not always powerful enough to transcend differences of race, religion, or class. As I have argued elsewhere, adhering to the dominant conception of Scottish identity was contingent on meeting a set of conditions constructed around the core ideological clusters of British popular imperialism and the middle-class ideals of nineteenth-century Scotland.

‘Invisible Scots’, such as Flora Rossen, were embodied by Sir Walter Scott’s “man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.” Such a “wretch”, mused Scott, would “go down, To the vile dust, from whence he sprung, Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.”

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