Ezra Golombok – Glasgow’s Idealist Jew
Life is enriched by the range and variety of the people we encounter. Increasingly nowadays we confine ourselves to mental ghettos. Even within Judaism there are so many different people, different ideas and ideologies but all contributing in their different ways to the richness of our communities. I have benefited in so many ways by the special individuals I have been privileged to meet, and occasionally I share some of them with you. This piece is concerned Ezra Golombok, the editor and owner of Glasgow’s Jewish Echo, once the pride of Jewish Scottish journalism.
I arrived in Glasgow, my first permanent rabbinical position, in 1968. I was fresh from yeshivah in Jerusalem; young, idealistic and wet behind the ears. I knew I wanted to transform Orthodoxy in Glasgow from a minority pursuit regarded as unattractive and antediluvian, to one of wider interest and relevance. The majority of Glasgow Jews affiliated to Orthodox institutions by default. But Judaism for most of them was a social phenomenon rather than a spiritual one. I knew would have to try to show them a version of Orthodoxy that was thoroughly in tune with modern ideas and would not stand in the way of living in an open society. I was coming into a strong “enlightened” lay community often in conflict with its rabbinic leaders and with the inevitable rivalries and politics that characterize every Jewish community I have ever encountered.
I needed guidance and, above all, someone who knew the ins and outs of Glasgow like the back of his own hand. When I asked around, I found that there was one man whom everyone I spoke to complained about. The editor owner of the Echo. I knew then with absolute certainty that anyone so universally disagreed with just had to be the best possible mentor for me. I made the short journey from Giffnock to Paisley to find Ezra Golombok setting up the printing press with his own ink-stained hands in a shed of a printing factory, where it appeared he and a sweet elderly couple who did all the local reporting were the only employees.
I introduced myself. He looked up at me with disdain, told me he had no time for rabbis and I should get the hell out. I replied that I shared his disdain and he gave me a second look, offered me a cup of tea, and our friendship was born. He took me under his wing. He instructed me in the political quagmire of Glasgow Jewry, whom to avoid, whom to court. He gave me a weekly column in the Echo and a platform for my campaign. In no small measure, he helped me win over my congregation and the community. He didn’t agree with me much of the time, but I think he thought my sheer audacity was worth encouraging.
Every now and again he and I would play hooky. We would debate philosophical issues while we drove to the Trossachs or towards the Highlands and Islands. He took me on my first-ever skiing trip to Glen Coe. We schlepped some ancient wooden skis and hiking boots, but when we got there the snow had melted except for a mound of ice about six feet deep. Nevertheless, on principle, we slithered up and down it before heading home. Thank goodness, a few years later I went to Switzerland for the real thing.
His father, Zeev Golombok, had been an idealist and a dreamer who instilled a sense of communal responsibility, or perhaps obligation, into his son. In 1948, Ezra had been research chemist at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, Switzerland. But his father asked him to give up his academic career to come back to Glasgow to help him run the Jewish Echo. Two years later, with his doctorate under his belt, Ezra took over the editorship and ran it more or less singlehandedly for 42 years. Like his father, he was a good example of a transported Lithuanian Maskil. He was fiercely Jewish, but equally fiercely anti-clerical. He should have been devoting himself to academic research rather being confined to his printing shop in Paisley dealing with petty details of who was getting married to whom and when, or who was filling up the local burial plots. Ezra would upset his clientele by refusing personal announcements or advertisements from time to time when he did not approve of their wording or disagreed with their politics (or corruption). He was an idealist, a maverick, and a loner.
He was fortunate that he had an equally brilliant and nonconformist wife. She brought love, warmth, and sanity into his life, and two really cute and very bright kids. As a bachelor, I was always grateful for a good evening meal and a bit of family warmth, which Ezra and Susan offered me generously.
After a few years I left Glasgow and we both simply got caught up in our own lives. Apart from a couple of visits he made to Carmel and I to Glasgow, we lost touch. I had heard that the Echo had struggled to survive in a declining community. When I was in Glasgow, the Jewish community was near to 15,0000 strong; nowadays it’s around 3,000. The Echo had been supported by the Glasgow Community Trust for a while. It finally closed in 1992. Attempts were made over the years to buy the newspaper, but neither father nor son considered making money a priority. They just did not think anyone else could preserve the character and quality of the paper or its commitment to the community. Ezra simply hung in there until there was nothing left.
Nowadays he is the director of the Glasgow-based Israel Information Office, a facility opened by the Israeli government to keep Scots better informed about Middle Eastern politics, the peace process, and other aspects of Israeli life. Ezra, ever the idealist, soldiers on. I thank him publicly for all he has done for a small but significant pocket of Jewish life in Scotland, and all he and his family have done for me.
Happy 90th birthday, Ezra. Thirty years to go.