Category Archives: Plymouth’s Synagogue

Evidencing the research


Showing the first coffee morners the 1820 map of Plymouth, that showed a potential town square where the Synagogue would have had a prominent visible position – unlike today.


The 1820 map of Plymouth


Family photographs and ephemera that fuel my interest in my identity and ancestry.


The second coffee morners listening to Vera’s stories.

Thanks to Anna Kelly, secretary of the Plymouth Synagogue for the photographs.

Coffee with Vera in the Vestry


COFFEE WITH VERA IN THE VESTRY: sharing a cultural conversation

A solo site-specific performance                    Created and performed by Ruth Mitchell

Wednesday 22nd May @ 3pm and 7pm       Sunday 26th May @ 12 noon

In the vestry of the Plymouth Synagogue    Catherine Street, Plymouth

A performance of stories  about identity and heritage from the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in continuous use in the English speaking world. Join Ruth and Vera Jockleson, chair of the Ladies Guild, for an informal coffee morning.                                  This is a free event and is part of Ruth’s MRes in Theatre & Performance at Plymouth University.

I will also be giving a performance at the Jewish Museum in London, on Sunday 30th June.

the Jewish Museum

Just had a few days in London with a visit to the Jewish Museum and the first night of Told By an Idiot’s My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic, which was a co-production with the Drum Theatre Plymouth. I would have taken a trip to the museum anyway, as my performance is inside an orthodox Jewish building, but finding out that the Chief executive is Abigail Morris, who directed me in the Verity Bargate award winning play Kindertransport by Diane Samuels in 1993, meant that it was even more important. What a great place, rooms of wonderful artifacts and interactive information, oral histories plus answers to questions at the push of a button. Having Abigail as a tour buddie was a great advantage with little insights and then a meeting with Elizabeth Selby – the social history curator and collections manager who found me items relating to in particular, Plymouth’s synagogue.

JM 1054

property of the Jewish Museum

this calling card above is particularly interesting as Abraham Joseph came from a family who were one of the largest and most well respected within the Hebrew congregation. Abraham was a purveyor of naval clothing and advisor to Prince William, (the third son of George III) who was captain of the frigate Pegasus. The notes attached claim that the Joseph family maintained royal connections for three generations.


property of the Jewish Museum

Here is a silver snuff box presented in 1837 to Aaron Nathan, the constable of East Stonehouse, which celebrates his discovery of a gang of coiners.

Steps towards site-specific performance x2

Well after I’ve been saying that my research would be food related I seem to have acquired two cookery books on Jewish food. One, I have to give back but the other has been gifted to me by a member of the Synagogue’s congregation who I spent a lovely hour with last week. Unfortunately I was hoping that I would be able to present my new skills in Jewish baking within the body of the performance, but I’ve been told categorically that I will not be able to bring homemade food into an orthodox vestry, even if I used kosher ingredients. I was hoping I could share a piece of Honey cake with the audience but I shall now have to re think.


I just love this book and its technicolour cover, it fits in so perfectly with the decade I was thinking about when I first fell upon some of my research, and see, there’s my Honey cake recipe.


The most fascinating aspect of this research is the ethical part and how I have to work around the strict rules about what I can and can’t do. Will that eventually be to my advantage – or not? I have so far collected quite a bit of archival material and met a handful of ladies who I’ve enjoyed talking to, now comes the part where I must go through everything I’ve collected and select and reject.

homemade matzos

When I went along to the Plymouth and West Devon Records Office I took a notebook that I picked up because it still had some spare pages in it. I had used it last year when I went to Los Angeles to visit friends – it was small and fitted inside my bag easily. I found a recipe inside a magazine in our host’s kitchen for matzos and, because the recipe only called for three ingredients, I wrote it down. During my research about the synagogue and it’s vestry I came across a page, translated from the early 1800s, calling for the congregation to come and make their own matzos. At the same time I found the noted down recipe for homemade matzos in my notebook and I started to piece together a germ of an idea.

My research will now include food and what it stands for. The vestry has been used for the preparation and eating of food, for celebrating during religious festivals, for certain rites of passage, bar and bas mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

Here is my first attempt at homemade matzos.DSCN4430

Why we make choices


Hebden Bridge West Yorkshire

I have been reading Walking Writing and Performance (2009 ed Roberta Mock, Bristol: Intellect) as it looks at three separate solo performance case studies. In the final piece Deirdre Heddon talks about her reaction to using Exeter as the place for her performance ‘One Square Foot’.  Each square foot was chosen by the artists involved because of its autobiographical, historical and political resonances and associations. Heddon was at odds with the fact that she had spent relatively little time in Exeter as opposed to Glasgow, the city she called ‘home’. This made me think about my own home, personally I feel I am miles from my spiritual home (see above) even though at 13 years I am coming up to living in the city of Plymouth for as long as I have in any other. It also got me thinking as to why I had chosen the synagogue to perform my own site specific performance. There has to be a more complicated reason I have chosen the synagogue besides the fact that it holds an incredible history that Plymouth doesn’t seem that interested in celebrating. If I was subconsciously choosing the synagogue for my chosen space, why was that? The fact that I don’t call this city my home has to do with not being able to put down roots, (I moved here not through personal choice) I feel like I am travelling, on a journey. This may have something to do with the fact that I have always been nomadic in my work, going where the work was and travelling the world to do so. But, in the past I still had a place I called home to go back to when the work was done. Now though the work has started to dry up and not only because I have reached that age where women start to become invisible, but also because I am hidden within the geographical isolation of the South West. Therefore am I drawn to the hidden-ness of stories because of my own isolation or do I see a metaphor in the Hebrew congregation with my own, once nomadic but now dwindling career?

The Liminality of my chosen space.

The synagogue Catherine street IMG_5539

The synagogue Catherine street, photo by Simon Gomery

So, I can reveal that my chosen space for my site-specific performance is the vestry of Plymouth’s synagogue, the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue, in continuous use, in the English-speaking world. Hidden away, even from the pavement (you can just see the roof of the building behind the synagogue above), many people don’t even know the building the vestry is housed in exists. If you’ve read previous posts you will know that I am very interested in the hiddenness of places and I have tried to explain one of my reasons for choosing it below; I can’t deny that my theatre background has had a hand in that.

If, according to Victor Turner (1992), a theatre and dance hall is where liminal behaviour takes place, then a dressing room must surely be an example of a liminal space. The performer enters the theatre from their everyday life, they divest the garments of that everyday world and put on the costume of the character they will play within the theatre. The dressing room acts as an in-between place where one performance ends and another is about to begin. In the vestry of a church, chapel or synagogue the priest or rabbi comes into the space just as the actor enters the dressing room. They enter as themselves but put on the garments of the ritual performance of the service. The vestry therefore acts as their dressing room, the place in-between the outside everyday life and that of the performance of the service they are facilitating. In its previous life as a Hebrew school the vestry of the Plymouth synagogue also had a liminality – the place where childhood met adulthood, where the boy is tutored for his coming of age bar mitzvah. This act is liminal in the ritualistic performativity of tutoring children into the ways of adulthood. Therefore, the space has remained a liminal space throughout its two hundred year existence from school to vestry.

The building itself was built at a time when planning in the relatively small town included a green area at the front of the synagogue. When these plans didn’t materialise and other buildings were built around it, the school building became hidden away becoming liminal in its place within the mapping of the city. Only accessed by people who were using the building, the place, never noted by passers-by because there was no visibility from the pavements, was therefore never in the psyche of the gentiles in Plymouth. Therefore in its architecture, it’s usage and its place within the culture of the city, the entire life of this space has been mainly forgotten by all but one group of the city’s inhabitants.

Turner, Victor (1987) The Anthropology of Performance, New York: PAJ Publications.