Jewish East Enders

A guided tour reveals London sweatshops, communists, synagogues and anarchists.

By MARISA S. KATZ
September 7, 2006 09:49
jewender lon 88 298

jewender lon 88 298. (photo credit: Courtesy of Philip Walker)

 
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Clive Bettington is not your ordinary kind of guy. He's what some may consider an overachiever, but for a handful of others, he is a Godsend. Bettington is a member of 21 conservation societies, most important of which, according to him, is the UK's Jewish East End Celebration Society (www.jeecs.org.uk), which he founded in 2003. Surprisingly, Bettington doesn't live in London's East End. In fact, he isn't even English, but was born and raised in South Africa. And perhaps most shocking of all - Bettington isn't Jewish. "I am very keen on conservation," he says. "I formed this organization to preserve and encourage an academic history of the area. People need to cherish things." Indeed, many visitors to London's East End are unaware of its glorious Jewish past. Since the one-time population of 350,000 left for more affluent neighborhoods in the mid to late 20th century, it has been difficult to garner support in upholding and maintaining the area's former Jewish relics. "Persuading England's Jewish population to support this conservation [endeavor] was my biggest challenge," says Bettington. "I wanted to save it and respect its present and future." The East End has a tradition of being a refuge for immigrants. It all began in the late 1600s, when the Huguenots made it their home after fleeing from France. Nearly 200 years later, Eastern European Jews began their descent in response to Russian pogroms. Although today's East End is predominantly filled with Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants, there are still a handful of Jewish gems scattered throughout the neighborhood to remind visitors of its one-time vibrant past. Bettington's Jewish East End Celebration Society is an outstanding organization devoted to helping visitors explore and understand London's East End history. Some of the walks organized by the society, which last around two and a half hours, are "Rabbis, Radicals and the Yiddish Theater," "The Dark Side of the Stepney Ghetto" and "Three of the Surviving East End Synagogues." "Most [visitors] are not aware of the types of people that once lived here," says Bettington. "On our walks we discuss the neighborhood's Jewish artists, theater, communists, synagogues and anarchists." INDEED, THE East End was once a hotbed for Jewish radicals who were devoted to communism and even anarchy. After fleeing from the Russian Tsar, many of these Jews found refuge in the Stepney and Whitechapel districts of the East End. With little to no money to their names, many of these immigrants worked in sweatshops with horrendous conditions. Regardless of long shifts, wages were not sufficient for most workers to adequately feed their families. As history would have it, many of these individuals were well educated and had previously partaken in revolting against the Tsar. As injustices mounted, anarchy became the movement of choice to liberate themselves from their abominable conditions. The movement had grown so large that the leading anarchist periodical in Britain was published not in English, but Yiddish. It was called The Workers' Friend, or Abeiter Fraynd. Remnants of Jewish anarchists' heydays can be found all over the East End. Just off Whitechapel High Street, down the Angel Alley, is the Freedom Bookshop (84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX Tel: +44 20 7247 9249), which carries various books devoted to the neighborhood's political history. Make a right off Whitechapel Road to see the famed 100 Sidney Street building, the location for Britain's most famous siege. It was here that two Jewish anarchists, wanted for murder, had so effectively barricaded themselves in the building that police troops from the Tower of London precinct were called in. The house was eventually destroyed in a fire, along with the two suspects. Alfred Hitchcock found the events so engaging he recreated the incident in the film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). There is no disputing that London's West End reins supreme in Britain's theater world. However, there was a time when the East End was renowned for its Yiddish theatrical productions. East London's first theater group was called the Hebrew Dramatic Club. Located at 6 Princelet Street, this drama club began operating in 1887 under the auspices of David Smith, a kosher butcher. "But in 1888," says Bettington, "17 people died when someone wrongly shouted 'fire,' and the audience stampeded for the exit. It closed shortly afterwards." However, if you walk down the street you'll know you found it when "you see a coal hole cover with a viola on it," Bettington says. Take a walk down Mile End Road, and you will eventually come across a building called the Genesis Cinema, formerly known as the Paragon Theater of Varieties. A young Charlie Chaplin made an appearance here in the early days of his career. Anna Tzelniker, the famed Yiddish actress who still lives in the East End, fondly describes the theater functioning not only as a source of pleasure for the Jews, but also as an emotional refuge. "Jewish immigrants needed the Yiddish theater for their souls, just as they needed bread to eat. Many of the plots were melodramatic, but the poor immigrants saw the plays as an escape from their drab surroundings," says Anna. "Once the immigrants became proficient in English, the Yiddish Theater began to die." SYNAGOGUES OF the East End are something of a rarity these days. What once totaled 151 has now dwindled to four; what's more, the average age of the congregants is 87. Just down the road from the Hebrew Dramatic Club is the former Princelet Street Synagogue. Although it closed its doors in 1970, the synagogue drew worldwide attention when it became the setting for the Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair novel, Rodinsky's Room. Fortunately, the distinctly beautiful Bevis Marks Synagogue, England's oldest, (it was built in 1701), still has an active congregation. Just off Petticoat Lane, Bevis Marks is a Sephardi synagogue whose original congregants were Jews hailing from Spain and Portugal. With its rich dark wood and elaborate chandeliers, Bevis Marks stands out as one of England's most beautiful temples. If you find yourself in London for a Friday evening, consider joining the synagogue for Shabbat services (Henage Lane, London, EC3A 5DO Tel: +44 207-626 1274). Still, one other active synagogue warrants a visit - the Sandy's Row Synagogue (4a Sandy's Row, London E1 7HW Tel: +44 20 7253 8311). A one-time Huguenot Chapel, Sandy's Row was converted into a synagogue in 1870. Dutch Jews, who at the time controlled the cigar and diamond cutting industries, used this facility as their place of worship. Walk northwards on Bell Lane until you find Stewards Lane. Once you reach Artillery Passage, you will make a right onto Sandy's Row. To round up your journey, make sure to indulge in a slice of cheesecake from the only remaining Jewish East End baker, Rinkoff's. Make your way to O'Leary Square to access the bakery, which is situated on Mile End Road. Ask to take your slice outside in order to admire what Bettington describes as "the green space on the other side of the road." In 1898, it is reputed that Theodor Herzl delivered a speech in that location to a crowd of East Enders. While in the area, take the opportunity to explore the recently revamped Spitalfields Market (www.spitalfields.org.uk), which is a wonderful shopping and food destination. Located above Liverpool Street Station, the Great Eastern's locale is ideal for exploring London's tragically hip Shoreditch neighborhood, where you will find a handful of the city's best art galleries and stores. For a detailed map of the aforementioned Jewish East End locations go to www.jeecs.org.uk, click on Around the East End and download East End Walk Maps.

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