Translated with Introduction and Commentary by Vivi Lachs

Published by Wayne State University Press. 240 pages. £23.50. ISBN 978-0-8143-4847-5 (Distributed in the UK by Eurospan)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Whitechapel was once the home of a thriving and lively Jewish community. The largest in the United Kingdom, it had started to grow as thousands of Jews arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe from around 1880. There were already Jews in Britain, especially London and also in other big cities such  as Manchester, but they were often members of the middle-class, keen to assimilate as much as possible, and mostly not in favour of using Yiddish as their favoured method of verbal and written communication. For the majority of the Jews arriving from Russia, Poland, and elsewhere, Yiddish was the language they used in the home, at work, and on the streets. They came from the shtetls and were predominantly working-class. It was a flexible language, taking in expressions from whichever country people were living in, while at the same time having a broad enough base so that it could be understood wherever Jews came together.

Although it’s clearly angled towards one aspect of the Jewish immigrant experience it could be useful to refer to William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (Duckworth, 1975) for information about the early days of Jewish life in Whitechapel. Fishman quotes the poet, Morris Winchevsky, on the subject of the Anglo-Jewry’s attitudes towards the newcomers: “They are ashamed of us; not as one is ashamed of poor relations, but as one is shamed by a leper, a black sheep……and their charity always has a flavour of riddance payment”. Fishman also refers approvingly to Emanuel Litvinoff’s novel, A Death Out of Season (Michael Joseph, 1973), set at the time of the Siege of Sydney Street, and “which presents a rare insight into Jewish immigrant life”.  

It shouldn’t be assumed that all the Jews in London lived in Whitechapel. But they were noticeably concentrated there for several decades. And even those choosing to live in other areas (North London, for example) often worked in Whitechapel, or chose to visit it regularly because the Yiddish theatres were there, along with friends, clubs, restaurants, shops, and other facilities.

There is an entertaining piece called “The Whitechapel Express” by A.M. Kaizer in London Yiddishtown which follows the route of the number 47 tram (later replaced by the 647 trolleybus) which ran from Stamford Hill to Whitechapel. Kaizer’s descriptions of the variety of passengers and their activities, ranging from reading Yiddish newspapers to knitting, talking, and sometimes even singing, has a humorous angle but deftly establishes a record of a specific time and location. His sketch, originally published in 1934, was designed to be read by Yiddish speakers, but has lasting qualities because of its social values.

It’s probably true to say that, by 1934, there were signs of a lessening of activity in Whitechapel. Vivi Lachs suggests that the writing was on the wall even before that : “By the 1920s, however, the Jewish East End was in decline”. And she goes on to point out that those still living there “were mostly an older generation of working-class immigrant tailors, cabinetmakers, and market-stall holders who still spoke Yiddish. Many of these Yiddish speakers did not want to pass on the language to their children, worried that it would hold them back or cause them to suffer anti-Semitism. The children, who were in or had been through Anglo-Jewish and local authority schooling, were, in any case, firmly anglicised”. The tensions that arose between the generations were often referred to by the writers Lachs has translated.

In Katie Brown’s “Breadwinner” the assertive Rachel, who is going hiking, upsets her mother, who says “I haven’t brought up a girl to dress in men’s trousers and go off wandering around forests and fields with a strange boy. I didn’t behave like that at all”. And she wants to know if the boy is “at least Jewish”. Rachel simply laughs at her, points out that she is the breadwinner in the house, and tells her mother not to speak Yiddish when the boy arrives. In Brown’s “Too Jewish” a son-in-law explains to his wife’s mother that they can’t name their child “Yisroel” because it sounds “too Jewish” and “in the neighbourhood where he lived it wasn’t the done thing to give a child a Jewish name. It wouldn’t fit in with the neighbours, or in the school he would attend, and even he would find it hard, because then people would know that they were Jewish, and these days you had to be careful with this sort of thing”.

The question of being identifiably Jewish occurs in the more-overtly political writings of L.A. Lisky. He had direct experience of Fascist anti-semitism in Vienna, and left that city to move to London in 1938. His story, “Fascist Recruits” explores how and why someone joins Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and “On the March with the Hungry” is centred around one such march and the difference in attitudes between a father, who is reluctant to join in demonstrations despite being unemployed, and his son, a more militant-minded person, who does go to Trafalgar Square and is clubbed by a policeman.

Lisky’s “Nationalist Feelings and Class Interests” concerns Mr Klepman, a factory owner, who instructs his manager to fire the female workers when they laugh at him and quickly hire new ones: “Don’t you know what to do with slackers like that?” said Klepman. “Let them work till the end of the week and then throw them out”.  He then returns to his comfortable home and is glad that he’s living in London and not in Germany where Jews are being persecuted.

It’s a fact that many of the sketches and stories in London Yiddishtown are didactic in intention. They’re making points about life and its problems, though they frequently do it with humour. It’s easy to see how they fitted into the context they were designed for, i.e. publication in the Yiddish newspapers and magazines that flourished in Whitechapel. Kaizer’s “When You Go to a Yiddish Theatre” makes easy-going fun of people who eat peanuts and scatter the shells, not only the on floor, but on those nearby, or who take out slices of watermelon to gorge on.

And Kaizer’s “Moses in London” is the story of how, when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt and into Israel, he discovered that he had forgotten to provide himself with an immigration certificate so had to remain outside the Holy Land. He somehow gets to London and approaches various Zionist organisations for the appropriate documentation. He’s turned away by them all for one reason or another, and eventually ends up in the London Jewish Hospital, where he dies. Upon which the different Zionist bodies compete to claim him as their own.

Katie Brown could also use humour to good advantage, as in “Jewish Readers” which anyone reading it would recognise from their own experiences of being asked to lend someone else on the bus their newspaper, or being conscious of the person behind them peering over their shoulder to read the news. And “I Need a Flat” tells of the difficulties encountered when living alongside neighbours who complain, while “My Prince, the Socialist” is a light satire on having a son who suddenly takes to speaking on soapboxes about the iniquities of the capitalist system. Brown was herself active in the Workers’ Circle, a left-wing mutual-aid society.  There is satirical intention, too, in “When a Woman Becomes a Person” where she is taken to task by her husband because she makes fun of him in her column in a Yiddish newspaper. She then offers some tongue-in-cheek advice on how wives should treat their husbands.

It’s essential to see the three writers picked out by Lachs as operating in the context of a wider circle of Yiddish authors. Her “The Literary Landscape of London’s Yiddishtown and the Fight for the Survival of Yiddish, 1930-50” does just that, and provides an informative and provocative survey of what was taking place in the period referred to. She points to the fact that, by the 1930s, younger Jewish writers often preferred to write in English, even if they knew Yiddish. Books like Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy, and Willy Goldman’s East End My Cradle aimed to reach readers outside the Jewish community, as did Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street, though that was based among Jews in Manchester and not Whitechapel. A little later there were Roland Camberton’s Scamp and Bernard Kops’ The World is a Wedding, both entertaining and not restricted to the world of Yiddish readers.

It has sometimes occurred to me to wonder if Julius Lipton knew Yiddish? I’m sure he must have done, though his book, Poems of Strife, published in 1936 in an edition of 95 copies by Lawrence & Wishart, is written in English. He’s quoted in the introduction by C. Day Lewis as saying that when he does find employment he works “fifteen hours each day, in a ‘sweat shop’ wielding a heavy press iron”. The copy of his book that I have is signed by Lipton and dedicated to someone called “Joy”. From references in the poems I would guess that Lipton was a member of the Communist Party.  

Lachs is mainly concerned to look at the fate of Yiddish after 1930 and, in particular, in the post-war years of the late-1940s and early-1950s. Yiddish didn’t disappear, but it was largely used by older people. Many of the anglicised young had moved away in search of jobs, wider educational opportunities, and what they saw as less-restricted social activities. There was also the situation with regard to housing, the East End having suffered badly during the Blitz. The docks were a key target for German bombers.

The Yiddish writers carried on, despite the audience for their work having diminished. Yiddish publications continued to appear, though sales of newspapers, magazines and books were never enough to ensure that the writers contributing to them would be paid reasonable fees for their work. Life had never been a bed of roses for Yiddish authors, and, as Lachs says, “it was almost impossible to make a living from writing for the Yiddish press in Britain, and few were full-time professional writers”.

The poet Avron Nokhem Stencl perhaps put it in more personal terms when he wrote in 1938: “It has not been easy to plough the arid cultural earth in London. The field of Yiddish culture is hard and stony. Hard, as is every place that has not felt the warm kiss of human work for a long time”. Stencl, who founded a new Yiddish literary magazine during the early days of the Blitz, is remembered as “standing at the door of every literary or Yiddish-language event, selling his Heftlekh and, later, Loshn un Lebn”. There are photographs of both publications in London Yiddishtown.

When the older generation died, so to a great degree did Yiddish. Lachs, who did not initially speak Yiddish herself, relates how around 2000 she began to attend meetings of the Friends of Yiddish : “A small group of very elderly Yiddish speakers, augmented by a couple of Yiddish learners like me, read poems and stories, sang songs, and told jokes in Yiddish. I couldn’t understand most of it, but I particularly loved Phyllis, who with a broad London accent would read a different sketch by Katie Brown each week. I managed to understand whole sentences here and there in the story, but never seemed to be able to catch the punchlines at the end, at which everyone laughed”.

London Yiddishtown is a book that packs in a great amount of information about what is now a lost world that we can only recreate from the literature (novels, stories, poems, journalism) of the period and old photographs. From these we can, if we’re lucky, imagine what the people were like and how they dealt with everyday problems as well as larger social and political issues. Vivi Lachs has done a wonderful job in translating a selection of Yiddish writing, and providing a commentary on it and its creators. As she suggests, it is “literature that can be enjoyed today on its own merits, and within its historical context”. Her book can stand alongside the earlier Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914. (See my review, Northern Review of Books, March, 2019, and in Militants, Artists, Poets, Penniless Press, 2020).