NOISE: JEWISH IMMIGRANT LIFE IN YIDDISH SONG AND VERSE,
By Vivi Lachs
Reviewed by Jim Burns
“Between 1881 and 1914, 100,000 to 120,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews
Most of the Jews who arrived in the period concerned were from
The fact of Yiddish being the common parlance among the East End
Jews meant that there was a market for songs and poems in that
language. Once they were written, outlets for them to be printed and
performed soon sprang up in the shape of Yiddish music-halls, and a
variety of publications, including newspapers. Lachs has calculated
that “Over 400 Yiddish poems, songs and verses, which I call
`London’s Yiddish lyrics’,” were written between 1884 and 1914 and
published in local Yiddish newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, penny
song-sheets, and songbooks”. I doubt that much, if any, of this
material ever came to the attention of anyone outside the East End
of London, apart from perhaps among Jews who had moved to other
cities, like Leeds and
It wasn’t only the middle-class Jews who were opposed to shtetl culture: “Socialists and anarchists saw immigrant workers as clinging to outmoded ideas that they needed to reject in order to embrace modernity and fight for a socialist future”. They were internationalists and thought that Jewish workers ought to be involved in radical politics generally, and not just in local matters, and that they should take an interest in the work of British trade-unions. There was a noticeable reluctance on the part of many Jewish workers to join a union.
It was a fact, however, that in order to get through to the mass of
Jews in the
The youngest sells flowers there,
Lachs comments that Bertold Brecht “loved the song for being so strong with the social idea – because the sisters blame the circumstances and society for being a prostitute, not their sister herself”.
“Tired immigrant workers were not paying their hard-earned money to be given lectures or analysis”, says Lachs, when she turns to the subject of the Yiddish music-halls: “Over eighty songs were written by and for local performers. And over half of them have verses that relate in some way to sex and sexual relationships”. I can’t quote figures for the number of songs sung in music-halls that catered for English-speaking audiences, but it’s a fair guess that many of them followed the same pattern in utilising sex, if mostly by innuendo, as their basis. Audiences would have been well aware what Marie Lloyd was referring to when she sang, “A little of what you fancy does you good”.
Needless to say, both Yiddish and English music-halls were subject to adverse comments and even censorship, partly because of their use of sexually-suggestive songs, but also because the halls were looked on as places where people would fritter away their earnings. And where sexual liaisons could take place. Or, in the views of socialists, where the workers would be distracted from their true purpose, i.e planning for the next strike, if not the revolution.
There is a song by Arn Nagel about Victoria Park, a popular meeting place for East End Jews, that Lachs analyses to show how certain Yiddish words had dual-meanings that could be employed to exploit the sexual implications of the lyrics. “There goes Mr Itzik, scraping his bow/His nose is pointed, because he’s called Itzik” seems innocuous enough when translated into English, but shmitsik (Yiddish for bow) is close to the slang word, smitshik, which means penis. The Yiddish rayhn refers to using the bow on the fiddle, but is also slang for “sexual intercourse, equivalent to ‘screw,’ and rahyn zikh is to masturbate. The use of the word noz in the next line makes connection to the expression, meaning ‘to give it to a person’.” Lachs suggests that the word “it” would have added emphasis, supplemented with gestures on the part of the performer.
Because of the compactness of the
Lachs lists a selection of similar Yiddish music-hall songs,
including “Fri ov Tshrdzh” (Free of Charge) where, when the husband
leaves the house, “the wife gets her ‘tiddle idl lomtom/totally free
of charge”. There were also songs which made fun of newly-arrived
immigrants who naively attempted to maintain orthodox standards.
“Freg keyn katshanes es is
It may have been that a lot of non-Jewish people would have looked
on the Jews in Whitchapel and thought of them as a unified body with
similar tastes and interests. It was far from the truth. Leaving
aside the separation between the more orthodox Jews whose appearance
(clothes, ringlets, etc.) would have made them stand out from the
less-religious Jews, there were differences in what might be called
everyday practices that marked where an individual came from.
Yiddish may have been the standard form of communication, but there
were variations according to a person’s origins. As for religion,
Lachs stresses that “observance, however, was not homogenous in
practice. Orthodoxy from the old country had a range of religious
expressions, and the
Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Romanians. They could be placed by
other Jews through their speech and habits, in the same way that
English people could be identified by their accents and other
factors. But to the anti-Semitic element among the population, all
Jews were the same. There was a body of opinion in
Increasing assimilation, particularly after the First World War, and
the movement of some Jews out of the
is a valuable book, particularly so because it deals with Jewish
life in the East End of London. There have been quite a few
publications looking at Yiddish poetry and music in
Lachs states that her book had its origins in her Ph.D, but it is, I’m happy to say, thankfully free of the academic jargon that mars so many publications. She writes good, clear prose, and offers ideas for consideration instead of theories. Whitechapel Noise has extensive notes and a good bibliography.