Jaclyn Granick reviews Paul Morrison’s Solomon and Gaenor through new eyes.
I logged into the Yiddish New York festival website last December to look at the curated film selection this year. The first film listed was Solomon & Gaenor. To my surprise, it included two non-English languages: Welsh and Yiddish. Welsh?! As Cardiff University‘s first modern Jewish historian and a Yiddishist, I was amazed to discover the existence of a Welsh-Yiddish film. I watched it immediately. An American transplant, I thought maybe that explained why I had never heard of this film, but as Nathan Abrams, professor in film at Bangor University in North Wales, told me, it was a film that has long flown under the radar but broadly remembered as well-shot. The film’s writer and director, Paul Morrison, a few days later at the festival also spoke to the positive reception of this film among its varied audiences, despite its troubling themes.
Set in the heart of mining towns nestled in the valleys of South Wales, this film traces the intersecting story of Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd), a young Jewish man, and Gaenor (Nia Roberts), a young Welsh woman, in 1911. Solomon is peddling cloth from his family’s shop in a nearby valley when he meets Gaenor at the door of her parents’ home. The two become lovers and Gaenor introduces Solomon, passing as “Sam,” an Englishman, to her parents. But soon, Gaenor is pregnant and is publicly denounced by her chapel, just as a miner’s strike starts to fray the social fabric and there is an attack on Solomon’s shop. Solomon and Gaenor make defiant plans to escape together, but Solomon’s parents send him to Cardiff and Gaenor’s send her to a rural farm to give birth. Solomon goes in search of Gaenor, enduring a bloody beating by her brother, Crad, and then a frostbitten walk across mountains to find her. Gaenor returns to her town and family, having given away her baby and with her lover in a coffin.
More than twenty years after its creation, there is still plenty to say about this film. If most available reviews of the film see it as a Romeo and Juliet story set in Wales, I must ask: in what version of Romeo and Juliet is there a baby involved? Star crossed lovers from separate houses Solomon and Gaenor maybe, but the baby they produce fundamentally changes this narrative well away from Romeo and Juliet. I gasped in horror as Gaenor handed over her beloved newborn to a rural, anonymous Welsh Nonconformist chapel, turning her back on the baby in order to return to “normal” life. Of all the tragedy and injustice written across the story, it is that baby’s fate, and the culture that forced the mum’s hand, that left me the most appalled. The entire story is a fierce criticism of patriarchal society and the double standards and burdens placed on women, a fact that nary a review addresses. Nor did the discussion at the festival which centred on masculinities.
And yet. Despite Gaenor’s heavy losses, she lives, and what’s more, her brother, Crad, meets no justice whatsoever for looting Solomon’s home or for nearly beating him to death. Capulets and Montagues are abstract houses, seemingly equal in status, rendering Romeo and Juliet’s story universal. Solomon and Gaenor, however, belong to distinctive, historic communities, each with its own history of oppression, resistance, and cultural depth. That specificity is in fact highlighted in this film, which went to great lengths to portray characters speaking in fluent Welsh and Yiddish and engaged in historically faithful renderings of those communities more than a century ago.
Nevertheless, as much as elements of this story reflect a Jewish experience of South Wales, in which modest success in business was coupled with an antisemitism that sometimes resembled that from which they had fled but in a Welsh hue, the Welsh were engaged in a class conflict in which Jews were an afterthought. The cause of widespread dissatisfaction were the wealthy coal industrialists and inspired strong trade unions and socialist party organizing among the working people, which trumped even ideas of English oppression in this period. Nonconformity, meanwhile, had a powerful hold over much of the working-class population in this period, as well, which included adhering to its strict moral code.
There was no entrenched conflict between Welsh and Jew. The film creates that conflict, imagining a Wales in which the Welsh travelled the same historic trajectory as Russian peasants, and as if one-time anti-Jewish property violence in Tredegar was a spark that led to spillover violence and murder elsewhere as in Tsarist Russia. While antisemitism and simmering resentment certainly existed in everyday South Wales, this film essentially makes what was a one-time violent attack seem far more commonplace—fictionalizing a second attack literally doubles historic anti-Jewish violence.
Certainly, though Welsh Jews and Nonconformist Welsh got along imperfectly, the Welsh were concerned with actual oppressors and, on the whole, did not take it out on the Jews. Jews were but a footnote, whereas this Oscar-nominated Welsh film retold Welsh history as if the Welsh-Jewish relationship were an animating, central theme.
The real violence which portrayed a historical truth in this tale was machismo, which left me primarily with sorrow for Gaenor and the baby, whose struggle seems very real. Even if Solomon’s Yiddishe mama (played by Maureen Lipman) was not warm and welcoming to Gaenor, she sat her down for tea and a chat and offered some money, rather than death blows. Gaenor and her child were condemned by her own people for having sex outside marriage, and with a Jewish man.
What the film did give me, then, was a new window into Welsh society through Jewish and women’s eyes, and a new appreciation of my students, Gaenor’s proverbial descendants.
With thanks to Welsh historian Dr Stephanie Ward and film scholar Professor Nathan Abrams.
You probably didn’t come over here in time to meet Barry Davis, a wonderful Yiddishist who died, sadly, way too soon a few years ago. He was the Yiddish language instructor for the film, and played the rabbi, so I remember very well the progress of this film.