Nathan Abrams, Professor of Film at Bangor University
The film Solomon & Gaenor celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It is a rare creature – a Jewish film set in Wales. Two versions were shot – one in Welsh and one in English and thus Welsh, English, Hebrew and Yiddish can be heard on its soundtrack.
Released in 1999, it was directed by Paul Morrison. It stars a budding Ioan Gruffudd who would later go on to be famous in various Hollywood roles as Solomon, a young Orthodox Jewish peddler whose family has moved to the valleys in South Wales. On his travels selling cloth and textiles door-to-door he meets Gaenor (played by Nia Roberts), a local girl from a coal mining, chapel going family. Despite their different faiths, and against their parents’ wishes, they begin to fall in love.
The film fictionalises the true story of those Jewish immigrants who settled all over Wales. As historian Cai Parry-Jones has outlined in his excellent book, The Jews of Wales, initially, many newly-arrived Jews peddled their wares door-to-door. Eventually, after accumulating enough capital they bought a property and set up shop in a local town.
They settled down there and established communities with synagogues and schools and other Jewish amenities. The main communities were in Cardiff and Swansea but given the geography of the valleys in particular, scores of Jewish communities sprung up over the south of Wales, as well as in the north. Imagine, if you had to walk to synagogue on the Sabbath – Jews are forbidden to drive, use public and other forms of transport – it might be an arduous walk up and down a hill, so synagogues were established closer to home.
This Romeo and Juliet-style romantic story also dramatises a dark era in Wales’ past. Director Paul Morrison chose to set the film among the Tredegar Riots of 1911 in which a rampaging mob smashed the windows of Jewish businesses and looted them. Several shops were destroyed but fortunately, no one was injured.
The then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, deployed troops but they arrived too late. Historian Cai Parry-Jones relates how a fourteen-year-old Aneurin Bevan was a witness to the window-breaking.
Whatever the precise causes, whether economic conditions or anti-Jewish prejudice, it nonetheless remains the only anti-Jewish pogrom on British soil since the readmission of the Jews into Britain in the seventeenth century.
The film’s director discovered the story while he was researching for a documentary about Jewish identity in Britain. He came across an exhibition of the synagogues of the south of Wales. He recalled, “And although I’m Jewish, I had no idea there were Jews in Wales, in the valleys. And I got curious about it and that brought the opening image of the film, of that black-coated, bearded Jew striding over the mountains and through the slag heaps. And from that, I discovered the story of the riots and the juxtaposition of these two cultures felt very powerful and the love story came from somewhere in me.”
The film is beautifully shot. It stands as a lasting testament to the Jewish presence in Wales which continues today. Perhaps we can call this, to appropriate a phrase from the Welsh-Jewish comedian, Bennett Arron, Jewelsh history.