By East End Walks
October 28, 2008
A few months ago I was fortunate enough to take three groups of year 6 schoolchildren (11 year olds) around the East End on my historical walks. I enjoyed it a lot and I know from the feedback it was much appreciated by them. Some parents and grandparents came along too.
One of my favourite moments was explaining the kind of work that Jews did when they came as immigrants. I use this to teach them some Yiddish words like shnayder (tailor), shuster, (boot/shoe maker) and stolyer (cabinet maker). I asked the kids if they knew any Yiddish words - and the usual ones came forth - shmatte, shluf, oy vey... As we walked on, a girl quietly said to me I know another Yiddish word, and she repeated a phrase my grandad used perhaps too often - "gey kakn afn yam" - "go crap in the sea".
"I think it means 'go away'" she added helpfully.
As we were going round I was struck by a comment I overheard one parent make to another: "They teach them all about Israel but really they should be teaching them this kind of stuff." I didn't comment at the time. it's rude to eavesdrop isn't it? But I was really glad to hear this. I agree completely. I'm not saying Israel is not important. It's not my favourite Jewish location though it is, after all, with America, one of the two largest Jewish communities in the world. But it is not where most of these children, their parents and grandparents come from. It is not especially relevant to their daily experience of family and community.
Their London/East European/(or Sephardic) Jewish roots are what makes them who they are culturally and provides them with hemshekh (continuity). When I asked them if any of them had grandparents from the East End some said yes, some said no but most didn't know!
They didn't know. Even more alarmingly, when I took a young Jewish group of 18-30 year olds on a similar tour and asked the same question - again most of them didn't know. Now my children didn't go to Jewish schools. I did, but I left as an 11 year old nearly 40 years ago, so I don't have too much of a handle on what they teach these days in terms of Jewish content but I would have thought that the bare minimum a Jewish school should be teaching them is about who they are and where they are from geographically, historically, culturally.
The religious have their "If I forget thee O Jerusalem..." mantra. Well I have a secular "If I forget thee O East End..." mantra. It was where we achieved our sense of humanity and values in the daily struggle for work, for education, for life. it was where we learned what a trade union was, what a sense of community meant and what practical solidarity meant when it came to combating fascism.
My final stopping point when I took one school group round was a small patch of grass just off Whitechapel High Street. In the 1980s it was renamed Altab Ali park to honour a young Bengali clothing worker who was killed nearby in a racist attack in May 1978. I was very moved by the children's ability to link that to the stories I told them about Jews in the 1930s fighting antisemitism in the East End.
So tell your children proudly where they are from, and if they are in/near London get their school to bring them on one of my walks! (and if you've forgotten what to tell them you can come along too.)