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 WHITECHAPEL NOISE: JEWISH IMMIGRANT LIFE IN YIDDISH SONG AND VERSE, LONDON 1884-1914

By Vivi Lachs

Wayne State University Press. 331 pages. £25.95/$36. ISBN 978-0-8143-4355-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Between 1881 and 1914, 100,000 to 120,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews settled in London, mostly in the East End”. Quoting these statistics, Vivi Lachs points out that they do not include those people who were temporarily in the city while they were on their way to the United States. And she says that “at any one time, numbers were up to three times higher than official figures”.

Most of the Jews who arrived in the period concerned were from Eastern Europe, and were not wealthy. They came from The Pale of Settlement, the designated area for Jews in Russia, and from shtetls in Poland, and elsewhere, and their presence was seen as something of a threat by English trade-unionists who thought that they undercut wages and consequently took jobs away from local workers. They were also resented in many ways by middle-class Jews (Anglo-Jewry) who had been in Britain longer and had attempted to assimilate by toning down obvious signs of Jewishness. The concentration of large numbers of poor Jews in one area, and their speaking Yiddish and bringing the manners and habits of the shtetls with them, led to tensions between the established Jews and the newcomers. As Lachs puts it, the culture of the immigrants “was deeply strange to the established Anglo-Jewish community”.

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 Manchester, where there were sizeable Jewish communities. It wouldn’t have attracted the attention of metropolitan literary critics. Even some Yiddish-speaking commentators and critics were inclined to the view that it lacked sophistication and literary merit.

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 East End it was necessary to use Yiddish. This applied as much to entertainment as to social and political concerns, and the line between the two was often blurred. Lachs devotes a fair amount of space to Morris Winchevsky, a poet who, for a time when he lived in London, became almost the voice of the East End Jews, telling of their problems and the struggle to overcome them. There was little finesse about Winchevsky’s poems. It was the content he cared about, and he had what Lachs describes as an “activist and anti-aesthetic stance” when it came to constructing a poem. She notes that: “The poems by Winchevsky that stood the test of time were those put to music and sung on union demonstrations”. There is one Winchevsky poem that was immediately popular when it was first published, was set to music, and is still sung today by performers specialising in Yiddish songs. Called “Dray shvester,” it tells the story of three sisters who can be seen regularly plying their wares in Leicester Square:

                                The youngest sells flowers there,                                                                                                      
                                
The middle one – shoelaces                                                                                                          
                                
And late at night you can see approaching                                                                                  
                                
The oldest, who sells herself.

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 East End Jewish community it could be that audiences might recognise references to known individuals. But if not to individuals then certainly to easily identifiable types and situations. The influx of hundreds of young, single men into the East End, where there was already a shortage of accommodation, meant that many of them had to seek lodgings with families that needed to bring in some extra money. What was likely to happen in some cases was, as Lachs mentions, a fairly common theme in English music-hall songs. She quotes Vesta Tilley’s “Our Lodger’s Such a Nice Young Man” as an example, where Tilley, playing the part of the daughter, tells how the lodger “helps everyone out, but in particular her mother”. I don’t like to quibble, but I think it was actually Vesta Victoria, not Tilley, who popularised this song.

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 England” (Don’t ask silly questions, this is England) places an orthodox Jew in a room alone with his landlady, who seduces him. In songs like this, “sexual behaviour becomes an exemplification of the freedom of England”, though the orthodox establishment no doubt saw that “freedom” as leading to moral downfall.

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 East End became a microcosm of Eastern European sects and factions, each with its own specific codes and styles”.

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 Britain, and perhaps especially so among the English, which actively called for strict limits on the number of immigrants allowed in. The British Brothers’ League campaigned for restrictions. The 1905 Aliens Act was a step towards them. Some incidents, which were blamed on Jews, reinforced stereotypical ideas about unrestricted immigration allowing criminals to freely enter Britain. Lachs lists several violent episodes, including the famous Siege of Sidney Street, and indicates how they could easily persuade the general public that there were connections to be made between violence and anarchists and then from anarchists to Jews .There was an active group of anarchists in the East End, though they didn’t necessarily indulge in criminal activities.

Increasing assimilation, particularly after the First World War, and the movement of some Jews out of the East End, inevitably led to a decline in the use of Yiddish. The closure of the Yiddish music halls meant that many performers simply disappeared, though a strong Jewish presence made itself felt in mainstream entertainment and the arts. But the singers, musicians, and others were not using specifically Jewish material. I do recall one singer, Issy Bonn, with a song called “My Yiddishe Momme” as being a favourite on the radio in the 1940s. His style, both as a singer and comedian, was clearly based on performing in music-halls. From references in the lyrics of “My Yiddishe Momme”, It was obviously American in origin.

Whitechapel Noise 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 New York, where there was a much bigger concentration of Jews. And it’s worth noting that Vivi Lachs points to the exchange of material between London and New York. Morris Winchevsky, in fact, moved to America and was prominent in Yiddish poetry circles.. There have been one or two books dealing with specific aspects of the London Jewish community. William Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (Duckworth, London, 1975) comes to mind immediately. But Vivi Lachs with Whitechapel Noise has opened up some new ground by looking in detail at the poems and songs that dealt with Jewish life in the East End of London in the years between 1884 and 1914.

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.