Professor Joe Goldblatt
“So, who invented God anyway?” When a seven year old lassie asked me this question upon the Orkney Island of Shapsinay last week, I was, as we Scots say, literally gobsmacked. As I spoke about Judaism to over 500 children, in seven primary, junior and high schools, upon four islands over a period of five days, I received dozens of questions just as challenging as this one.
I began visiting the Orkney islands ten years ago when I was issued my senior bus pass. I literally was curious to see how far the then new golden ticket for Scottish transport would take me in my adopted bonnie land. Upon arriving in the magnetic north of our country, I discovered that whilst legally a part of Scotland the United Kingdom, the islands have their own individual culture, rhythms, and values.
It was my discovery of and respect for these local customs and values that encouraged me to offer my services to local head teachers as a speaker on Judaism to help bring their religious, moral and philosophical education classes some genuine experiences from a man who has been a practicing Jew throughout his entire life. To my surprise and delight, the teachers were enthusiastic and for many years I visited dozens of classrooms upon the main Island of Orkney in both Stromness and Kirkwall.
Last Spring my wife and I attended the annual Orkney Folk Festival in the Town Hall in Stromness and a very confident young woman came up to me at the post event reception and asked “Where have you been?” Recovering from my shock, I asked her what she meant and she said she was a head teacher and she had not seen me in the Orcadian schools for a couple of years. I mentioned that due to the pandemic I thought perhaps that the schools needed a break from my services. Then she asked “When are you coming back?” Before I could consider her invitation we had agreed to a one week visit in November and as an excellent manager would do, she dedicated the task of arranging my schedule to one of her staff.
A few weeks later I received a provisional schedule that would take me from Stromness to Rousay and then to Kirkwall, followed by visits to Shapsinay and the far northern isle of Sandy. To facilitate this travel I would need to travel by ferry eight different times. I accepted the kind invitation from five schools and was surprised how easy it was to arrange my travel in order to share my stories of being Jewish with young people all over Orkney.
Upon my first visit to a primary school in Stromness I performed a mock Jewish wedding where two teachers acted as the parents of the bride and groom and they role played the negotiation of the dowry by arguing how many cows they would give for the privilege of the wedding to proceed. Upon an island where cows are not unfamiliar and precious in value these discussions grew heated until finally the bride’s family accepted a grand total of 12 cows. At the end of the ceremony, as we lifted the tiny bride in a chair and the 120 children clapped along to the Jewish wedding song, I explained that I was not legally able to perform a wedding and the tiny six year old bride and groom smiled in relief.
My next travel by a small ferry from Tingwall to Rousay offered me a further taste of island life as the head teacher and a music specialist joined me for the twenty minute journey. The small seventeen pupil school was immaculate and the creativity and learning taking place in the peedie (Orcadian for wee) classrooms was remarkable. One child whose parents owned a large farm asked me “Do you have to be Jewish?” I explained that Judiasm is determined by the mother’s side of the family so in my case I had to be Jewish. She then persistently asked me “What happens if you change your mind later?” I smiled and explained that religion is like a tree with high and low branches. During one’s life you may move from branch to branch. She then asked “Where is your branch?” I finally said “I am on a low one.” She seem satisfied with my answer as she smiled and nodded silently in agreement.
Upon my third day I returned to the mainland and visited Scotland’s third largest primary school in Kirkwall. Despite its size with over 500 students I was surprised by the level of silence and peacefulness I experienced in this large campus. The silence did not last long as the peedie bairns filed into the classroom and began to barrage me with their questions. “What came first, God or the Earth?” I then offered a scientific response (the Big Bang theory), a spiritual response (Adam and Eve), and even Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Survival of the Species. The young girl then added her own view by loudly stating “I think the Big Bang came first because only God could make a Big Bang!”
My weeklong journey concluded with a forty eight hour visit to the islands of Shapinsay and Sanday. I learned that newcomers are most welcome upon these islands however, resources for helping them acclimate are scarce. According to one local leader, during the pandemic the island of Sanday experienced a forty percent increase in population and schools and other services struggle to keep up with the demands of the newcomers who are mostly from England and who are seeking a new and better way of life for themselves and their children.
My own experience in the magnetic northern isles of Scotland is that there are indeed opportunities for a better life due to the small class sizes and highly skilled and dedicated teachers. However, there is no certainty this shall continue and I suppose this is why I am committed to helping children in distant isles learn to appreciate the Jewish people in Scotland and far beyond.
This recent journey was entirely funded by my personal funds. However, if my visit results in persuading a few children to one day learn to love my Scottish grandsons, it will be well worth the time and treasure I invested. As the young child asked me at the start of my journey, “Who created God?” I hope that whatever one believes, that through educational opportunities such as this one our values continue to bend toward righteousness, compassion and love. Perhaps this is the true magnetic forcefull pull of Scotland’s northern isles.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. The views expressed are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot