Don's diary

October 17, 1997


Here we are in the Black Lion Hotel in wild Wales after a hectic summer. In May I was appointed to the new chair of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter. This is the only established chair of Jewish theology in the United Kingdom. Over the last few months we have sold our house in Canterbury (where I taught at the University of Kent), and we have bought an old coach house deep in the Welsh countryside, eight miles from the town of Lampeter. Completion is to take place tomorrow, and we are camping in the hotel for the night. Across the street is the university, a splendid grey college building constructed at the beginning of the 19th century.

Beyond are green hills dotted with sheep. Every hour the bells on the clock tower strike the time. At dinner my wife and I look at a large plaque in the dining room listing past presidents of the local women's society. Almost all the ladies seem to be either Mrs Evans, Mrs Jones, Mrs Williams or Mrs Davies, the same names we have seen on the local shops. Is everyone related to everybody else? I have the sinking feeling I will be the only Jew in all of west Wales.


Today the move. In the morning the van arrives at the hotel with all our possessions. We are to lead the driver through the countryside to our house. In the rear-view mirror I nervously watch him negotiate the narrow lanes. He seems totally unbothered. At last we arrive, and two burly men unload our belongings. In the middle of the move, the wife of the former professor of theology calls to invite us to meet the former Welsh nationalist leader Gwynfor Evans. I have been reading his history of Wales over the summer, and it is not everyday one encounters someone who was willing to starve to death to preserve his native language, and who discomfited Mrs Thatcher in the process. We are thrilled. In the evening, after putting all our things away, we trundle off to our first Welsh class in the nearby village school. Twelve people turn up, all bewildered immigrants from England. We go over the alphabet and I am completely defeated by the Welsh double "ll" sound. Apparently you start to say "l", but then hiss behind your teeth instead. It is far harder than Hebrew, and I feel this is going to be a major preoccupation for the next few years.


Wake up and look out the window. There are green fields, hills and sheep in the distance. Wander around the house in a state of bafflement - what on earth is a nice Jewish boy doing here? Later set off to the university. The department is to move into a new building that has been constructed over the summer. My books had been sent in advance, and were being stored in the old theology school. I see all my stuff piled up on a cart being pulled by an antiquated tractor. The move to the new building has begun. Watch a team of good-humoured men unload boxes of my books plus furniture and put them into my office. Nothing is finished. They have to step over cables, cans of paint, and rolls of carpet. On the stairs I meet several of my new colleagues looking shell-shocked. There are no bookshelves in the offices as yet, so here we all are with boxes and boxes of books, but nowhere to put them.

Still, the view from my window, straight over onto the college, is marvellous. Later in the afternoon we all get together and celebrate the move with coffee and chocolate cake. Everyone is in good spirits. However, when I return home, my wife tells me that neither the oven nor the central heating are working. We go out for dinner. At the sole Indian restaurant in Lampeter we shamelessly listen to an animated conversation in Welsh at the next table and do not understand a word. Will I ever learn the language?


My first departmental meeting. We gather in the palatial board room. By now everything is beginning to look spectacular! Am introduced to the group, most of whom I have already met. The head of department reports that we have recruited well, and we are to have nearly 50 new undergraduates and more than 100 postgraduates. Lots of enthusiasm. As we go through the agenda, various tasks are assigned and I find that I am appointed to several working parties. Even though we have attracted a large number ofstudents this year, everyone is anxious to keep up the momentum. Many suggestions about ways to do this, and everyone seems keen to go out to speak at schools and sixth-form conferences. Later in the day we have our pictures taken - they will be put in the entrance hall so that students will know who we are. Join a group who set off for the media department where the photographer is waiting. I wonder if I can come back if my picture is terrible.


The day begins with the first faculty meeting. The vice chancellor has composed a long document dealing with the Dearing report. Sit next to a colleague and ask him throughout the session who everyone is. In the afternoon, a meeting is arranged for all new staff. The v-c, registrars, bursar, librarian, dean of arts, head of computing and others take turns telling us about the university. I am most impressed that they take the time to do this. It really is helpful. At the tea break I try out my Welsh on the librarian who listens patiently. Later am told he twice won a chair, the very highest honour, for his Welsh poetry at the National Eisteddfod. I feel a complete idiot.

DAN COHN-SHERBOK, Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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