The Meadows / the ‘Yiddish Parliament’

We have stopped at the Meadows. But it was not always meadowland. Clues as to what was here before are to be found in the alley names we passed through e.g. Boroughloch Lane. It was a loch (a pond)! In the sixteenth century, the loch’s primary purpose was water supply for the city. But by the seventeenth century, the waters had begun to recede from overuse (as much by the brewers as the citizens of Edinburgh) to such an extent that the area surrounding the water began to be used for grazing animals. And this area surrounding the loch began to be called the ‘meadows’. As the water became muddier and muddier, an effort to drain the loch completely continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until it was fully drained by the middle of the nineteenth century. Cattle, horse and sheep were grazed on it well into the twentieth century. The first memory of David Daiches was the cattle show of 1919 held on the Meadows.

Graham Street synagogue
Graham Street Synagogue (corner of Keir Street) (Image courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.)

Prior to the opening of the Salisbury Road synagogue in 1932, which brought together the Russisher/Griner and Englisher shuls on the Southside, all those who had moved south from the old quarter were required to re-track their route across the Meadows to reach their respective shuls in the St Leonard’s area and in Graham Street (now Keir Street).

Once Salisbury Road Synagogue was opened in 1932, the Meadows still had its uses, particularly on shabbat and festivals. For most of the members of the Salisbury Road Synagogue of that era would have lived within walking distance of it because they would have been moderately observant Jews. So, the Meadows was a place for the young to meet on a shabbat/shabbes afternoon and for the elders of the community to sit and kibitz (gossip).

Indeed, it was the seat of the ‘Yiddish Parliament’. Berl Osborne recalls how the Yiddish Parliament used to meet

on a park bench opposite the tennis pavilion in the Meadows. Its membership was composed predominantly of gentlemen from der Heim who had arrived in Edinburgh mostly between 1880-1914. I can see them now—my own father, Rufchik Hyman, Yudel Simonoff and Mr Plancey the baker. Chatzeh (Yekhezkel) Rifkind (grandfather of Malcolm, the Foreign Secretary and Arnold Rifkind, the gabbai of the Salisbury Road Synagogue) was not a regular attender, his interests being Talmudic rather than political, but he was an occasional and much respected visitor. He was the elder statesman of the community as far as religious matters were concerned…Proceedings of this Parliament were of course, conducted in Yiddish…. stirring tales were told… of ‘ganvenen der grenitz’ (stealing over the border) and of service as a ‘Nikolai’khe soldat’, (conscripted soldier of Tsar Nicholas).

Yiddish is no longer the mama loshen (mother tongue) of Edinburgh’s Jews. But Yiddish as she is learned lives on and has since migrated in Edinburgh, albeit not too far from the Yiddish Parliament: (first to the classrooms of the Dick Vet Veterinary School and more recently to the Sukkah of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation), and always under the inspirational tutelage of Heather Valencia.