By East End Walks
October 4, 2008
It was nearly 25 years ago that I went on my first East End walk. Our guide was Bill Fishman, at that time teaching at Queen Mary College, near Stepney Green. While many of Bill's collegues were researching obscure aspects of history from places far away in distance and time, Bill looked closer to home. He knew that there was a wealth of history to be explored on the doorsteps to the college. He's written several fascinating books but for me the one that stands above them all is East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, republished a couple of years back by my friend Ross at Fiveleaves Publications, and relaunched in Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel.
It's a people's history, telling the story of ordinary lives in extraordinary times - the period of mass immigration of Jews from Tsarist Russia and the challenges they faced as they sought to establish themselves in London's East End. As people struggled to change their circumstances, fighting gruelling poverty, striking against sweatshop bosses, challenging the rabbis who supported the bosses, he shows how, some of them developed a vision of how to change the world.
They organised themselves around Yiddish anarchist newspapers such as the Arbeter Fraynd, and created organisations such as the Berner Street Club and the Workers Circle. It is a poignant and inspiring tale, written with admiration and love.
When I met Bill for the first time and went on his walk - he lived up to the book perfectly. He took us through narrow alleyways and dismal streets, animatedly telling us a story 100 years old, but relating it all the time to the communities who preceded and followed the Jews too. The East End has been home to many communities of political and economic migrants and refugees. They have many differences as well as commonalities, but our stories are clearly intertwined.
Bill is now in his late 80s and not in the best of health. But I saw him speak recently - about the non-Jewish, German Anarchist, Rudolf Rocker, who played such an important role unionising educating and mobilising the Jewish workers of the East End - and it was a powerful and moving speech.
And everytime I lead a group round the East End today, adding my stories, conversations and research to his, I'm proud to follow in Bill Fishman's footsteps.
Yosher koyekh, Bill!