The life and legacy of the Jewish East End

Leon Silver, c Mike TsangLeon Silver

This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Tower Hamlets.

Prior to the First World War, increased persecution caused a mass emigration of Jews to the Spitalfields, Stepney and Whitechapel areas of the East End of London. In the new Jewish East End, poverty was rife, but high levels of religious observance, literacy, respect for education and strong cultural traditions also created an environment of intense creativity and self-help. Though this has been in decline for many years, the infrastructure for a revival of Jewish life in the East End still just about remains.

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The first Jews known to be in England were brought over by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century to handle his financial affairs. Subjected to special laws and restrictions, increasingly persecuted, they were finally expelled by Edward I in 1290. Some remained, living at least outwardly as Christians. When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice it was illegal to be openly Jewish in England. Elizabeth I had a Christianised Jewish doctor, Rodrigo Lopez, who was later hung, drawn and quartered. Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets was, according to some scholars, a crypto-Jewess.

It was not until 1656 that Oliver Cromwell, responding to a petition from Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, allowed the resettlement of the Jews in England. Dutch descendants of those expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, their original Sephardic London synagogue, circa 1660, was in Creechurch Lane, near Aldgate. In 1701 they moved a few yards away to Bevis Marks, which remains as the oldest British synagogue in continuous use to this day.

The first purpose-built Ashkenazi synagogue, which became known as the Great Synagogue, Dukes Place, was opened circa 1690. A mere few yards from Bevis Marks, rebuilt in 1772 and enlarged in 1776, it was destroyed in the Blitz of 1941.

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“The Yiddish-speaking new arrivals transformed the shape of Anglo-Jewry. The Aliens Act (1905), the first legislation to restrict immigration, was a government response.”

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From 1881 until the outbreak of the First World War, increased persecution, especially the pogroms in Russia and neighbouring countries allied with widespread poverty, caused a mass emigration of over two million East European Jews. Most headed for America but over one hundred thousand – some by intent but many by running out of funds or having been cheated when buying tickets they thought were for America – settled in the Spitalfields, Stepney and Whitechapel areas of the East End of London. They had arrived locally through the East London docks and had the added advantage of finding pre-existing communities in the area. These Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking new arrivals greatly outnumbered the established Sephardi and mainly Dutch Ashkenazi, and they transformed the shape of Anglo-Jewry. The Aliens Act (1905), the first legislation to restrict immigration, was a government response.

Great_Synagogue_After_250_Years,_Dukes_Place,_London,_1941_D2803
A memorial service held at the Great Synagogue, Dukes Place, which was destroyed in the Blitz.

On the international level, the East European pogroms, coupled with the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair in France, led to the creation of political Zionism. The Ukrainian massacres of the 1920s, the rise of Nazism in the 1930s culminating in the Holocaust in the 1940s which destroyed two thirds of European Jewry, over a third of World Jewry, led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. From the start, there was and remains a small but consistent emigration to Israel from the British community.

In the Jewish East End, chronic overcrowding, insanitary conditions and poverty were rife and were accompanied by the inevitable social ills. However, high levels of religious observance, literacy, respect for education and strong cultural traditions also created an environment of intense creativity and self-help. Political activities, particularly of the Left, religious and secular Zionism and anti-Zionism, Yiddish theatre, literature, art, music and publications all flourished. Whitechapel Library became known as the University of the Ghetto. Lectures and cultural events at the Peoples Palace in Mile End and elsewhere were well attended. Jewish youth clubs, notably the Brady Club (1896) and Oxford and St. George’s (1914), founded by Jewish philanthropists, were designed to keep youngsters out of trouble and to Anglicise them whilst retaining their Jewish identity. Synagogues on virtually every street corner, many in converted workshops or houses, also provided funeral insurance and welfare benefits for members paying a few pence to belong. Maternity district nursing and the home-help systems were Jewish community innovations later adopted by the wider community. There were soup kitchens for the Jewish poor (in part to counter anti-Semitic claims that the Jews were a burden on the State), friendly societies and synagogue ladies’ guilds usually consisting of the poor aiding the very poor. The Jews’ Temporary Shelter offered assistance to the destitute and homeless among the newly-arrived.

Employment, often seasonal, was predominantly in the ‘shmutter’ (rag) trade: long hours in sweatshops, the poor pay supplemented by extra work taken in at home. Others worked as cabinet-makers, small shopkeepers and market traders.  Hessel Street, off Commercial Road, with its multiple kosher butchers, poulterers, bakers and delicatessen shops was known as the Yiddisher Market. Many of the shops and stalls in Watney Street and Whitechapel markets and virtually all of Petticoat Lane (still closed on Saturdays and open on Sundays) were Jewish.

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“Maternity district nursing and the home-help systems were Jewish community innovations later adopted by the wider community.”

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Bevis_Marks_Synagogue_02
Bevis Marks Synagogue has been in continuous use since 1701.

Massive bomb damage during the War and increased prosperity has caused a huge exodus from the East End. Estimates vary, but something in the region of only two or three thousand Jews, mainly elderly, remain in the area out of the old community. Only three synagogues remain (not including Bevis Marks, which is just over the City border) and none are open full-time. The East London Central, also known informally as Nelson Street, is the last and only remaining purpose-built synagogue (1923) in the East End and hosts many visits from schools, student groups (sometimes from abroad), churches, walking tours, historical societies and so on. Of architectural importance also, it participates each year in Open House London. It serves a valuable purpose in fostering good inter-communal relations, particularly among local, predominantly Muslim youngsters. It also is the venue for various cultural events, often of an inter-faith nature, and hosts the annual Tower Hamlets Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration. Some twenty other local synagogues have closed and amalgamated with it over the years.

Due to falling numbers, Jewish Care’s Stepney Day Centre in Beaumont Grove now occupies only one floor instead of the entire building. The Jewish shops have either closed or moved elsewhere. There is no longer any kosher butcher or baker, only the limited kosher counter at the Whitechapel Sainsbury’s. Authentic beigels (bagels) can still be bought in Brick Lane but neither of these two shops is kosher. Long gone are Barnett’s in the (Petticoat) Lane, where I had a Sunday and holiday job as a schoolboy, and Bloom’s in Whitechapel High Street, with their salt-beef sandwiches and long queues on a Sunday morning. Gone too is Goldstein’s smoked salmon shop and smoke-house in Alderney Road in Mile End. Master bakers such as Goide’s, Goldring’s and Grodzinski’s are no more, the last of these still being found in Golders Green and Stamford Hill but only a plaque showing its original site in Whitechapel. The last kosher restaurant, the Kosher Luncheon Club in Greatorex Street, closed its doors around twenty years ago and Great Garden Street Synagogue, in whose hall it existed, became the last of the old synagogues to amalgamate with Nelson Street.

There are Jews who have moved back to the East End, particularly young creative artists and urban professionals in the trendier areas of Spitalfields and Wapping, but they have not become involved with the local community For many others, the stigma of the East End remains, knowing that their parents or grandparents did all they could to get away and better themselves. Yet the old Jewish East End can be proud of the explosion of talent and creativity it brought forth and which went on to benefit wider British society. The fields of education, medicine and science, art, music and literature, film, theatre and television, industry, commerce, law and politics: all these were and are enriched by the Jewish contribution out of all proportion to their numbers. The Anglo-Jewish community is today estimated at around two hundred and thirty thousand, the fifth largest in the world. The infrastructure for a revival of Jewish life in the East End still just about remains, albeit hanging on by a hair’s breadth.

Leon Silver is president of East London Central Synagogue. He is on the steering group of Tower Hamlets Interfaith Forum and is the Jewish representative on Tower Hamlets SACRE. He is a qualified teacher and a professional actor.


The image of Leon Silver is included courtesy of Mike Tsang. All rights reserved. The image of the Great Synagogue is included courtesy of the Ministry of Information and is in the public domain. The image of Bevis Marks Synagogue is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

3 Responses to “The life and legacy of the Jewish East End”

  1. David Ruderman

    Dear Leon,

    I am the great grandson of Baruch Ruderman, one of the Jewish immigrants to London who ran a newsagents in Hanbury Street in the late 1800’s.

    I was fascinated by your article and wondered if you could help me find more information on our family’s ancestry.

    Thank you,

    David

    Reply
  2. shaul kirsch

    since i am a grandson to harry goldring, nephew to abigale sable ( the poetess ) i enjoy the reading.

    harry’s great grandson lives today in london

    Reply

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