One Woman’s Memories of London’s Vanished Jewish East End

Here’s another post from my blog’s archives which may interest readers.  It first appeared on my blog under the title “Snatched Memories: A Daughter of Zion on Yiddishkayt in the old East End”.

ImageBeth-Zion Abrahams (1902-1990), who grew up in a big East European immigrant family in London’s East End, was a sister of Israel Meir Lask, who settled in Eretz Israel in 1930 and became an acclaimed translator of Hebrew poetry. She was married to award-winning poet Abraham Abrahams (1897-1955), a former editor of the Jerusalem daily Ha-Yarden, who at one time headed the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), and was Chairman of the Zionist Revisionist Organisation of Great Britain at the time of his death. Beth-Zion wrote on aspects of Anglo-Jewish history and translated into English the Yiddish memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Her father, Joseph Chaim Cohen-Lask , was a Polish-born melamud who moved in 1890 to London. His mill and shop in Bell Lane, Aldgate, provided the East End with buckwheat. He was a Yiddishist and a stalwart of the Chovevei Zion (‘Lovers of Zion’) movement; following his death in 1937 his family donated his fine collection of Yiddish and Hebrew volumes to the Tel Aviv Municipal Library, but, heart-breakingly, later discovered that the collection had largely gone missing. Beth-Zion’s reminiscences of the Jewish East End, given in the course of an interview, appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle (11 January 1980). Her parents’ home, she recalled, was a hub of lively debate on various topics of Jewish concern, above all Zionism. Here’s what she had to say, without further comment from me, apart from the clarifications in square brackets:

“The names of the regular attenders at these gatherings was numerous. They included Joseph Brenner [Yosef Chaim Brenner, 1881-1921], later to be killed in the Arab riots in Palestine; journalists Suwalsky [Isaak ben Samson Suwalski, 1863-1913], Brill and Frumkin [probably Elias Ephraim Frumkin, c1880-1958]; Professor M. H.Segal [Moshe Zvi Segal, 1875-1968, who moved to Israel in 1926 and taught at the Hebrew University], and Gelberg, the Hebrew poet. All of them benefited from the ever-ready hospitality of my mother, who provided endless glasses of pale amber Russian tea with thin slices of lemon floating on top.

People tend to forget this cultural side of the old East End and remember only the ‘sweat shops’. The whole atmosphere was rich, colourful, and intensely Jewish, even though it was a time of great poverty, and the work of the Board of Guardians had to compete with that of the converting missionaries.

There were three basic divisions within the community. There were the Dutch Jews, with their Netherlands Club in the Tentergrounds. They were known as ‘chuts’ because of the way they pronounced ‘chut morning’ and similar phrases so gutturally. Then there were us Jews of East European stock who always spoke Yiddish. And there were the English Jews.many of whom looked down on the Yiddish-speaking foreigners in their midst.

Nevertheless, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the East End in those days. I was reminded of this many years later when speaking to Rev Balleine, a former curate of Whitechapel Church, who recalled to me with amusement a sign reading ‘English spoken here’ placed over one of the counters in the old Osborn Street post office. There was even an old Yiddish street singer called Solomon Levy.

Yiddish concerts in the local community halls were always crowded. One song which never failed to make all the women cry was A brevel di mame (a little letter to mother). In those days, you see, leaving der heim could often mean a lifetime’s separation from one’s family….

Beigel seller, Petticoat Lane, circa 1915
Beigel seller, Petticoat Lane, circa 1915

Petticoat Lane had an atmosphere of its own – typified by the ice-cream seller with his cry of ‘okey pokey, penny a lump!’ – and especially so as Shabbos and Yomtov approached. People would come in from all parts of town to do their shopping and then all the stalls and shops would close and peace would descend. Queues would form for the municipal baths in Wentworth Street, and I can still remember the formidable woman attendant with her turnkey would come and turn you out if you stayed too long.

After Yom Kippur, it was customary for many years for crowds of mostly young Jews to march from London Hos[p]ital, Whitechapel, through Aldgate as far as the Bank. Always on the right hand side of the road and chanting, ‘To the bank, to the bank, to the bank, bank, bank!’

At home we girls had a busy time of it before Shabbos, polishing the candlesticks and the cutlery, cleaning rooms, and so on. Cooking, a ritual common to every household, was something the children would love to watch. Everything was homemade. For lockshen dough the women used to roll out egg and flour in sheets on the kitchen table. Then it would be smoothed out on the bedspread ready to be folded and cut into thin strips. This was invariably accompanied by the regular ‘tap, tap, tap’ of the sharp knife on the table top.

Kneidlach, kreplach, chopped liver – all were prepared in similar routine fashion. Chickens were usually called ‘fowls’ then, and you could buy a whole fowl or a portion from one of the many stallholders lined up on either side of Wentworth Street and Cobb Street. You could buy a live fowl from a crate. And if you were intending to eat it rather than keep it for the eggs, you’d take it to the nearby schecht house for it to be ritually slaughtered and handed over to be plucked by one of the women regularly employed for this purpose.

Pesach brings back particularly happy childhood memories. Father, being a wholesaler, used to get tons of nuts, and as children we played a game using hazel and tiger nuts which made us much in demand in the street.

Mothers stood in the doorways beaming proudly at all the bonny children. Although we were living in what was technically a slum, we were extremely well cared for.

One of our favourite locations was ‘Itchy Park’, a churchyard frequented by tramps whose constant need to scratch themselves gave rise to our name for the place. But it was always safe. Despite living in one of the roughest parts of London, the children could run free without any fear of being molested.

….Everyone would be in and out of each other’s houses. There were no arranged visits. And people used to look after each other. I remember when one woman’s husband died, the neighbours set her up with a stall in the market from which she was able to bring up her family.

I think the regular, hard way of life we had gave us more backbone. And we were all strongly aware of our Jewishness. I very much regret seeing today the well-educated Jew who knows so much about many things but little or nothing about his Jewishness. He is even ashamed of it.

On the other hand, I don’t mind the diversity of affiliation across the community. This is a positive thing on the whole. We’re not all cut to pattern. And, after all, the only place you can be sure of unanimity is the graveyard!”’

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