Freedom! (from pants)

For hundreds of years, Jewish people have been living in Scotland, completely nude. Well, nude of their own tartan, anyway. They may as well have been completely naked by Scottish standards.

In Scotland, every tribe has its own tartan, a cloth woven with various colors and stripes that shows which clan you’re from. “Clan” is a Scottish term for “tribe,” and if there is one people that consider themselves tribal, it’s the Scottish. (Well, also the Jews. And also … Africans, Native Americans … come to think of it, there are a lot of people who consider themselves tribal. But the Jews of Scotland — they’ve got to be the most tribal tribe of all.)

It was only this past March that the Scottish Register of Tartans officially recognized the first kosher Jewish tartan. (There was a previous tartan but it wasn’t registered and it’s not made anymore.) 

Developed by Glasgow’s Rabbi Mendel Jacobs, the tartan is pure wool and blue and white, like the Scottish and Israeli flags. It has a gold line through it to commemorate the ark, silver for the Torah and red for Kiddush wine. Most importantly, it doesn’t violate sha’atnez, the law in the Torah forbidding mixture of wool and linen. The tartan design can be ordered on kippot, prayer shawls, kilts, kilt pins and neckties. 

Danny Lobell. Photo courtesy of Danny Lobell

This is big news for people like me. I’m fully Jewish and half Scottish, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the country of about 6,000 Jews. Most people know it only from “Braveheart,” which, I have to admit, I’m torn about. As a Scotsman, it makes me proud to watch it. As a Jew, though, it’s hard to take scene after scene of Mel Gibson.

My mom was born in Glasgow, Scotland, as were my grandfather and great-grandfather before her. My family dates all the way back to the times of national hero William Wallace. We were the ones in his tent with him doing his taxes: “Mr. Wallace, a quick word? You have listed under dependents, ‘The entire Scottish people.’ I just think that’s a wee bit much. Just trying to avoid an audit here, sir.”

Overall, the Scottish and Jewish aspects of my heritage mesh quite well. Even the food is the same! Kishka is just Jewish haggis. From lochs to lox — invented by Scottish Jews — to whiskey — created by Scots for Jews (Don’t believe me? Go to any Chabad house), we have a lot in common. 

Take moms from the two cultures, for example: Scottish moms are critical; Jewish moms are critical. So can you imagine just how critical Scottish Jewish moms are? 

My mom, a Scottish Jew, will say things like, “Oh, you’re writing a column for the Jewish Journal? Well, you should own the Jewish Journal! In fact, you should own the Wall Street Journal! Actually, you should work on Wall Street! No, you should run Wall Street … as a doctor!” 

I don’t think in the entire history of Scotland there has ever been one mom who felt that what her son was doing was good enough. The Scottish people have accomplished some very big things. Take Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. I imagine when he told his mom that he invented it, she probably complained and said, “Great. Now I have another monthly bill. Thanks a lot.”

So now Scottish Jews have their own tartan to wear. It’s about time that the Jews took to the Scottish battlefields, hurling logs in the caber toss and then burning them for Lag b’Omer services. We are proud that we can use either restroom according to the symbols on the door. (Scottish people were ahead of the curve on the transgender bathroom laws. They just put a symbol of a guy in a kilt on one door and a gal in a skirt on the other. Nobody knows which is which and boom! Suddenly you have restroom equality.) 

And next, we will start using the bagpipes instead of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Actually, better yet, we’ll combine the instruments to make the most unappealing sound any culture has ever heard. It’ll be called Celtic klezmer. Or Celzmer. 

So, guys, next time you’re in Scotland and you’re looking for a breeze where you had your bris, don’t settle for just any Scottish shmatte. You can finally enjoy a tartan all your own and, as Wallace would say, freedom (from pants)! 

Danny Lobell is an L.A.-based stand-up comedian who runs the podcasts “Modern Day Philosophers” and “The Mostly Bull Market,” as well as a monthly improvised storytelling show at the Hollywood Improv called “Bookshelf.”

In a post-Brexit Scotland, Jews warm up to a rising nationalist party

The last time that Scotland voted on whether to become independent from the United Kingdom, most of its 7,000 Jews thought doing so was a bad idea.

Worried that Scottish independence would encourage nationalism and embolden an already aggressive anti-Israel movement with deep roots in the pro-independence camp, Jews here were relieved when, during a 2014 referendum, 62 percent of Scottish voters supported remaining in the United Kingdom.

Less than two years after that supposedly definitive vote, Scotland and its Jews are preparing for yet another U.K. independence vote. This time around Scottish Jews may be more receptive to such a vote, thanks in part to anger over the June 23 Brexit referendum in which the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.

The head of Scotland’s government, Nicola Sturgeon, has called another U.K. independence vote “highly likely,” thanks to the Brexit results.

In contrast to English voters, who favored Brexit, most Scots voted to remain part of the E.U, and Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party has said it would not allow Scots to lose their EU citizenship.

Many Scottish Jews are now more at ease with the idea of split from the U.K., due to vigorous trust-building actions by Sturgeon, who heads the ruling Scottish National Party, or SNP — an offshoot from Labour that is now Britain’s third-largest party.

“They have certainly engaged with the Jewish community very strongly,” Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, or ScoJeC, said of SNP, which Sturgeon came to lead in 2014.

Under Sturgeon’s predecessor, the former SNP party leader Alex Salmond, the city councils of Glasgow and Fife flew the Palestinian flag during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza — a move many Jews interpreted as an act of solidarity with the terrorist group Hamas. At that year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a popular arts festival, two Israeli troupes canceled their performances in response to pro-Palestinian protests.

Citing police figures, ScoJeC reported a record 50 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 in Scotland and an “unprecedented number of Jewish people who expressed anxiety about their perception of increased antisemitism in Scotland.” The rise in hostility cannot “be excused as merely political protest” against Israel, the group’s report said.

At the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation — a large Orthodox synagogue located at the foot of a range of green hills — the staple prayer for the safety of Israeli soldiers was dropped at least once that year so as not to offend non-Jews during the conflict.

“Discretion is the better part of valor,” Rabbi David Rose said at the time.

Salmond, who had called for applying sanctions against Israel, largely ignored pleas by Jewish community representatives to curb the vitriol, according to Howard Singerman, former treasurer of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council.

But Sturgeon, his successor, is taking action, according to Borowski. He cited her “extremely strong message” during a conference on hate crime co-organized last year by the Chief Constable and the head of Scotland’s prosecution service.

“I don’t want to be the first minister, or even live in a country, in which Jewish people feel that they want to leave or hide their identity,” she said then.

She also distanced the SNP from “the unsavory and horrible creeds that call themselves nationalism.” If you choose to live in Scotland, she said, “it doesn’t matter where you’re from; it’s not about identity but about everyone who lives here sharing the responsibility to make Scotland as good as it can be.”

Sturgeon told Borowski she wanted her ministers “seen engaging with the Jewish community, not merely making statements.” She met with Israelis in Scotland, and attended Jewish communal events and met with Jewish students concerned about vitriol on campus.

Under Sturgeon’s leadership, ScoJeC saw its budget increased twice, once by 28 percent and then again by 20 percent on top of that.

Last year, the Community Security Trust, or CST, British Jewry’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, criticized an SNP lawmaker in the Scottish parliament, Sandra White, for retweeting an anti-Semitic caricature. It featured a sow labeled “Rothchild” nursing piglets labeled as Islamist terrorist groups, the CIA and Israel. Sturgeon called the incident “abhorrent” and apologized for it, as did White.

“Clearly, the Scottish leadership have realized that the anti-Semitism issue is a litmus test of sorts for Scottish society and we are seeing serious efforts to address the community’s concerns,” said Mark Gardner, the Glasgow-born director of communications of CST.

Other European parties “could do far worse than follow their example,” Gardner said.

Ahead of SNP’s bid for a second independence vote, Sturgeon’s Jewish charm offensive puts her on better footing with Scottish Jews than Salmond ever enjoyed.

Frustration over the vote for a British exit is palpable on the streets of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, where 74 percent voted against leaving the EU. Many locals have hung Scottish and EU flags on the windows, and 52 percent of respondents to a Sunday Times poll said they would vote for independence from the U.K. following Brexit.

Many young Scots have taken to wearing a safety pin on their jackets – a gesture against the xenophobic rhetoric that the Brexit vote unleashed in England (but not in Scotland). Others placed placards reading “Everyone’s welcome” on windows overlooking Edinburgh’s narrow, cobbled and winding streets.

Edinburgh’s Rabbi Rose says members of his congregation are “taking out European passports” to make sure they remain EU citizens – an option open to many Scottish Jews because, unlike older U.K. Jewish communities, most of them are descended from Jews who left Eastern Europe from the 19th century onward. Some Jews in England are doing the same, The Independent reported.

At a breakfast at the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation, Rose collects fees from about 12 congregants who’ve come for Sunday salmon, bagels and coffee. “This used to be worth a lot more last week,” he remarks with annoyance about the cup full of British pounds.

Following Brexit, the pound had its sharpest-ever two-day decline against the dollar, reaching $1.31 — a level not seen since 1985.

With the economy and political establishment in disarray, “Nicola Sturgeon is suddenly the only dependable figure for many Scottish Jews,” Howard Singerman of Glasgow remarked. A former Labour voter who has rejected that party over a series of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks by various Labour leaders, he said he is considering voting SNP for its strong social platform. He never would have done so under Salmond, he said.

Scotland’s major Jewish groups have taken a formal position neither on Brexit nor on independence. For Singerman and many other Jews who define themselves as proud Scots, independence would be going a step too far.

Some Scottish Jews, Borowski said, have an instinctive aversion to anything called or perceived as nationalist. Others simply think independence is either too costly or impractical. Many think their bid for separate EU membership would be blocked by members wary of their own separatist movements, including Spain, France, Belgium and Italy.

“As a Scottish Jew you can feel more trust toward Sturgeon,” said Evy Yedd, a co-president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. But she remains suspicious of other SNP lawmakers and said she’s convinced that “the independence thing is a total and foolish waste of time.”

‘Kosher’ tartan celebrates Scottish, Jewish heritage

A Scottish rabbi has created what he says is the world’s only “kosher” tartan, a plaid fabric pattern that represents both Scottish and Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Mendel Jacobs has registered the design with the Scottish Tartans Authority and is selling various wool Judaica items made from it, including a prayer shawl, prayer shawl bag and kippah.

“A friend of mine told me about a Polish tartan and a Sikh tartan had been registered, so why not a Jewish one?” Jacobs, of Glasgow, told The Scotsman.

Jacobs said he selected blue and white as the main colors because they appear on both the Scottish and Israeli flags, along with a central gold line representing the gold “from the Ark in the biblical Tabernacle and many ceremonial vessels.”

The design also includes silver “to represent the silver that adorns the Scroll of the Law” and red “for the traditional red kiddush wine.”

In addition to the Judaica, Jacobs is selling other items featuring the tartan, such as a mouse pad, necktie, kilt, scarf, mug and ballpoint pen. The fabric items are made of 100 percent Scottish wool.

“The Jewish people have been an integral part of Scottish culture for more than 300 years, with the first Jew recorded in Edinburgh in 1691,” Jacobs told International Business Times UK. “In Scotland, the Jews were never persecuted and there were no pogroms, no Holocaust, no national or state-sponsored anti-Semitic laws. When England was burning and exiling its Jews in the Middle Ages, Scotland provided a safe haven from English and European anti-Semitism.”

Ahead of historic vote, many Scottish Jews wary of independence

Bright blue signs scream “Yes” while red ones urge “No, thanks” in the streets of Scotland’s largest city just days before a vote on whether to secede from the United Kingdom.

But at Frank Angell’s house, his windows are empty and his yard is bare.

A former local council candidate for the Scottish National Party, the main political movement behind the independence push, Angell is a vocal supporter of the Yes campaign, attending rallies and touting the economic potential of an independent Scotland.

But in his local Jewish community, Angell is one of only a handful of supporters of independence.

Most of the affiliated Scottish Jewish community appears to want to remain part of the United Kingdom — among them Angell’s wife, Elaine. Hence the lack of signage on their lawn.

“The SNP has a history of pro-Palestinian support,” Elaine Angell said. “[UK Prime Minister] David Cameron is very strong. He’s pro-Israel. He’s always been pro-Israel.”

On Thursday, Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country or continue more than three centuries of union with England. The campaign has proved a divisive one here, with recent polls showing the country nearly split evenly on the secession question.

Supporters of independence believe that Scotland would be better able to allocate resources to the local population as a separate country while leaving a smaller military footprint than the United Kingdom. Opponents argue that the country is better served by the U.K.’s greater global influence and worry about the financial and political uncertainties of independence.

“It’s historical, cultural, but also practical, economical,” Angell told JTA. “The way the economy has gone in Britain has been to pander to a very rich minority and allow a lot of tax avoidance. I also object to the money being spent on nuclear weapons because I’m anti-nuclear.”

Many Scottish Jews say they are wary of secession, citing anti-Israel statements by the Scottish government, historic and family links to the United Kingdom, and the potential economic risks of independence.

“The Jews in Scotland have been well received,” said Malcolm Livingstone, chairman of the Glasgow Jewish Community Trust. “It’s only in recent times that extreme Palestinian groups have upset that. The Scottish Parliament has shown serious signs of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes.”

Scotland’s 2011 census counted fewer than 6,000 Jews — about 0.1 percent of the population — most of them living in and around the industrial metropolis of Glasgow. Including unaffiliated Jews, the total could be more like 10,000, according to the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities director, Ephraim Borowski.

The community hasn’t been polled and Borowski’s group has no official position on the referendum. But he says official condemnations of Israel during the war in Gaza this summer may have pushed some Jews to oppose independence.

During the war, the Scottish government released eight statements criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza. On Aug. 5, it called for an arms embargo against Israel to protest civilian deaths in Gaza. Glasgow’s City Hall flew the Palestinian flag for a day in August.

“I do know of people who have said explicitly that they intended to vote yes and now intend to vote no, and that’s connected with the much more explicit obsession with Israel and the Mideast,” Borowski told JTA.

The anti-Israel resolutions in Scotland have come alongside a spike in anti-Semitism here. More than 35 anti-Semitic acts occurred in July and August, according to Borowski’s group, compared to 14 in all of 2013. While the Scottish National Party, which is leading the independence charge, has condemned anti-Semitism, some Jews worry that nationalist feeling has encouraged it.

“Nationalism in Europe has not done well with the Jews,” Livingstone said. “I’m not suggesting for a minute that the SNP is like the nationalist parties in Germany, but within nationalist politics there’s always an element that tends to blame minorities for things that go wrong.”

Angell told JTA he has never encountered any anti-Israel sentiment at party conferences. Last month, Scotland’s second-ranking government official, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, wrote Angell a letter saying an independent Scotland would support a two-state solution and oppose boycotts of Israel.

“The foreign policy of an independent Scotland has yet to be written, but I know from the membership of our party that our attitude toward every nation and every group is a positive one,” said Vincent Waters, the SNP city councillor for Giffnock, a heavily Jewish Glasgow suburb. “We don’t have countries or ethnic populations that we favor one over the other.”

With a population of approximately 5.3 million, Scottish foreign policy isn’t likely to have a big impact on Israel. But Ben Freeman, 27, who grew up in Glasgow and founded an anti-discrimination nonprofit, says his country should support Israel as a matter of principle.

“It does matter because it’s our country,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to be part of a country that’s anti-Israel. I don’t want to be part of a country that’s anti-Semitic.”

Some Scottish Jews says they feel more of a connection to Britain as a whole than to Scotland. Unlike Scottish families who can trace their lines back to the country’s ancient clans, many Jews came here in a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe only a century ago, 200 years after England and Scotland formed a political union in 1707.

“Perhaps being a fourth-generation immigrant I have a different attitude toward being Scottish. None of my family was here in 1707,” Joel Conn said. “There’s a lot more that makes us British than makes us Scottish.”

Jews who support independence cite parallels between the Jewish and Scottish stories. Scottish nationalists have desired independence since the earliest rebellions against English rule in the 1200s, much as Jews longed for Zion over centuries of living in exile. And like Judaism, Scotland’s Presbyterian ethos historically encouraged education and literacy.

Joe Goldblatt, a native Texan who moved to Scotland six years ago and gained citizenship in July, was passing out fliers supporting independence last week in Edinburgh. Approaching a mother with a baby in a stroller, Goldblatt offered a pin to the “wee bairn,” or little kid.

“What’s the basis for all Jewish thought? Freedom,” said Goldblatt, a professor at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. “It surprises me when my fellow Jews want to be shackled to the old political tissue, as if they’re saying, ‘The pharaoh has been pretty good so far. Let’s not rock the boat.’ ”

Scotland’s Jewish population is declining as young people move to cities with larger Jewish communities in London, Manchester or Tel Aviv. Between 2001 and 2011, the community’s numbers declined nearly 10 percent.

But though many Jews oppose independence, Freeman doesn’t think a yes vote will cause a mass Jewish exodus.

“Those who will leave will leave and those who will stay will stay,” Freeman said. “I’m leaving in two years, but I want the best for the country of my birth, and I feel the country of my birth should not be independent.”