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A Walking Tour of London's Jewish Past

by Joseph Hayes

Brick Lane MosqueA tour of London's Jewish past is full of qualifiers, language with many references to former buildings, places that "used to be" and use of the word "original" -- sites of interest, with explanation.

The area known as the East End is many hamlets adjoining the old City of London, the Cockney section famously within hearing distance of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church. From the Thames River on the south border to Bethnal Green Road on the north and Aldgate High Street, it is a place now known for theater and tours of the notorious Tower, the home of Sherlock Holmes, the Elephant Man and Jack the Ripper. Always a magnet for immigrants searching for a better life in cosmopolitan London, it was also, at the beginning of the 20th Century, home to an estimated 300,000 Jews, a Quarter with residents from Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal. With more than 150 synagogues before the start of World War II, now there are only four, all of them at risk, and an elderly Jewish population of less than 3,000.

Like the shifting fate of the Jewish people themselves, the cycle of new immigration is never ending and life in the East End continually changes. Part of the ancient Roman wall that once surrounded Londinium is still standing, literally a stone's throw from the oldest remaining Jewish house of worship. More of the wall remains than signs of Jewish life, which in its turn supplanted older, established communities. What is now called the Brick Lane Mosque, the Bengali Jamme Masjid, was the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in the 19th century -- but before that it was a Methodist chapel, and before that a church for Hugenots escaping persecution in France. Punjabis, Somalis and expats from Pakistan and Bangladesh currently fill apartments and own shops that once held Kosher butchers and bookstores of rabbinical study. But the Jewish history of London has left its mark, as can be seen by walking the Quarter with an educated eye.

Roman Wall
WhitechapelThe first published mention of a Jewish quarter in London was in 1128, although their presence has been felt at least from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Jewry Street in London's financial center was where Jews settled both before their expulsion in 1290 and after the resettlement, 350 years later. From the late 1800s to just before WWII, thousands of Jews from Poland, Romania and Russia arrived in England, many crowding into the two square miles of Whitechapel and Stepney, close to where their ships had docked. My own grandfather, fleeing the dual anti-Semitism of the Reich and Tsarist pogroms, passed through London on his way from Russia to America.

He would have heard merchants in the old markets and bnarrow streets of Petticoat Lane and Brick Lane, pushing wooden carts and shouting prices in Yiddish. Cabinet makers, tailors, shoesmiths and cigarette makers literally rubbed shoulders with a thriving community of actors continuing the great tradition of Yiddish theater. Yards of dyed fabric stretched across the "tenter grounds" of Spitalsfield Fields, home of dozens of cloth makers, a section of town that became for a brief time part of the "playground" of Jack the Ripper -- several witnesses to the heinous crimes (as well as a few suspects) were local Jews.

Soup KitchenThe phantom remnants of the East End's Jewish past are all around. Rectory Square holds a Victorian apartment building now called Temple Court, once the East London Synagogue, and still contains Moorish tile interiors, stained glass and commemorative plaques. The beautiful sandstone facade is the only thing remaining from the heritage of the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street, opened in 1902 to feed indigent local residents. The interior, ironically, is now high-rent condominiums. The Whitechapel offices of the Jewish Daily News, closed for decades, still carries a Star of David sign that currently hangs above a men's clothing store. A similar Star is carved into the façade of a building on Bethnal Green Rd, an artist's studio that was once Bethnal Green Great Synagogue. Walking on to Brick Lane, the only remnants of a thriving Jewish social scene are two bagel shops, where Kosher meals are still available for the discerning. Princelet Street Synagogue became a museum, now derelict and closed, and the New Road Synagogue is a clothing factory.

War has always had an effect on the East End. It was from this area that many of the volunteers for what became known as The Jewish Legion were recruited, sent in 1917 to liberate Palestine from Turkish rule. There has been a great deal of reconstruction, as the area, so close to strategic docks, became a prime target for German bombing during the Second World War. The Philpot St. Great Synagogue and its attached shul (Hebrew school) were obliterated by German warplanes.

Bevis-Marks
SynagogueBut some houses of worship remain. Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, founded in 1899, is a tiny building dwarfed by the giant East London Mosque now beside it. Nearby is Rowton House, a lodging house where Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky lived while in exile. Much larger and grander is Bevis Marks, constructed for the Sephardic (Spanish/Portuguese) Jewish community in 1658 by a Quaker who refused to take payment for building a "holy place", and fitted with the same chandeliers as found in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields built 25 years later. The synagogue, originally called Shar HaShamayim ("Gate of Heaven") is the UK's oldest, modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam and built inside a courtyard, hidden from view at a time when synagogues were not permitted on public streets.

Sandy's Row Synagogue, founded by Dutch immigrants in Spitalfields in 1854, is in the opposite direction from Fieldgate Street, as is the Nelson Street Synagogue, the last to be built in the East End in 1923. And much like Brick Lane, the Mile End and Bow Synagogue is now a Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, its marble front step covered with the shoes of the devotees inside.

As the Jewish community thrived and life shifted west and north to London's suburbs, the changing population brought a change in local shops. Hessel Street Market, Frumkins wine merchants, even legendary delicatessen Blooms Kosher (reputed to have England's rudest waiters) eventually closed. Long gone, Feldman's Post Office on Whitechapel Road was the homing beacon for many new immigrant Jews to London, a place to find lodging, relatives, even a loan. The voices on Petticoat Lane now have an Eastern rhythm as the Market, once the mainstay of the Jewish community, provides familiar staples for the East End's current residents.

Landmarks of the Jewish past are worth seeking out. The St. Swithen's Lane house of Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria's Prime Minister, still stands, as does the headquarters of the Rothschild corporation, whose founder, Nathan Meyer Rothschild, is buried in the Brady Street Cemetery, a Reformed Jewish burial ground closed since 1858.

If my grandfather could walk the Jewish Quarter now, there would be little there for him to recognize, aside from the feeling of new immigrants seeking a better life on its still-cobbled streets.

More Information:

Several companies conduct walking tours of the area, uncovering a history of a people who were vital to the history of London.

Jewish London Walking Tours (http://www.jewishlondonwalkingtours.co.uk/: Stephen Burstin conducts four different regular tours, weekly Sunday afternoon public tours and private tours any day.

Original London Walks (http://www.walks.com) has walks of the Old Jewish Quarter, "A shtetl called Whitechapel", on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Whenever possible the tour includes a visit to the Bevis Marks Synagogue.

Secret London Walks (http://www.secretlondonwalks.co.uk) can arrange group walks of the East End and little-known Jewish sites in Soho and the West End.


Freelance journalist Joseph Hayes writes for print and online publications worldwide. His plays have been performed in New York, California, Florida, Oregon and England. Hayes' most recent publications include the Eyewitness Travel Guide: Walt Disney World Resort & Orlando for Dorling Kindersley, and pieces in Style1900 and the Orlando Sentinel. He is cofounder of The Burry Man Writers Center (http://www.burryman.com), a worldwide community of writers, and also hosts a personal site at http://www.jrhayes.net.
Article and photos © 2006 Joseph Hayes

 

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