How a New York visit made me more aware of home

By Jennifer Lipman, November 30, 2011

In vain, we searched for the pickle shop. Wandering around New York's historic Lower East Side, it seemed improbable, impossible even, that we wouldn't encounter a Yiddish-speaking man selling barrels of flavoursome and juicy cucumbers and telling us we had chutzpah when we tried to negotiate a good deal.

We did eventually find some (delicious, too), although only in a trendy coffee shop on a run-down but fashionable street, where the clientele ate them ironically with one hand on their Apple computers or their chai lattes.

Pickles aside, finding traces of Jewish life and history in New York was not much of a challenge. A century from its peak, the Lower East Side is as empty of Jews as it once was full. In that respect, it's like London's East End, a thriving hub reduced to a whisper. But what used to be there is still clear, from shops bearing the names of their Jewish founders to delis that are, if now no longer kosher, still steeped in an unequivocally Jewish cuisine, and streets and buildings adorned with the names of Jewish impresarios.

The history is not dissimilar to our own. Many Jews from far flung lands ended up in New York, but many, too, my ancestors among them, ended up in Liverpool, Cardiff - and the East End.

As in New York, they built lives, set up shuls, schools and newspapers, became visionaries, wrote books and built industries.

Like the East End, it's a thriving hub reduced to a whisper

Physically, there is more to see in New York than in our old Jewish hubs; many of the buildings that British Jews once inhabited have gone, destroyed during the Blitz or torn down, with perhaps a solitary blue plaque to denote their presence. But, beyond this, what struck me during my stay was the locals' pride in the past - particularly pride in this very Jewish story of survival and success against the odds.

Down the road from the café was the Tenement museum, offering heritage tours of the area and a video history of the "huddled masses" - Italian, Chinese and of course Jewish - who arrived there in the late 19th century. A look inside the tenement itself we had a glimpse into the lives of the Jews who came to Ellis Island from shtetls, impoverished and not speaking the language, only to leave the factories and the slums for a better life just a generation or so later.

My guide, a bubbly New Yorker who lives not far from the old Jewish recreation spot of Coney Island, showed us the mezuzot they brought with from the old country, explaining how the large numbers of siblings would have managed with one bed between them, how they would educate themselves about the wider world from the pages of the Forverts (or Forward) newspaper.

She spoke of daily trials - no running water or inside toilets, the constant noise and stench from so many crammed into such small spaces - and of tragedies: the children who died young or the 150 female Jewish and Italian workers who were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the worst industrial disaster in US history.

The US is, of course, somewhat obsessed with the idea of "the American story". The mythology of Abraham Lincoln's ascent from log cabin to White House, of defying modest roots, remains powerful whether with regard to presidential politics, Hollywood or business. Stratospheric rises may be celebrated in most places, but Americans also have an infatuation with from where or what someone has risen.

It is unsurprising that a nation built by immigrants, whose culture is a melting pot of borrowed traditions, should be passionate about recalling the past. US Jewry simply mirrors that. Walking around the Lower East Side, I found myself wishing that our community felt the same. Outside of a few hard-working groups running walking tours, or Who Do You Think You Are episodes, the mark made by Jewish immigrants to Britain is rarely highlighted or celebrated.

Teenagers are sent on Israel tours or to see the old Jewish quarter of Prague. We join trips to Auschwitz and the ghettos of Poland; we go to exotic destinations and look for places of Jewish interest in the guidebook. But what of Arnold Wesker's home, the places Israel Zangwill wrote about, or bagels on Brick Lane? What of the old, beautiful synagogues of the East End, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi? What of the Jewish shops and market stalls? Or Cable Street, Petticoat Lane and Commercial Row. What of more than 350 years of history in this country? What of our stories? Before long, there will be nobody who remembers them left.

The East End is not the Lower East Side and Britain is not its cross-Atlantic cousin. Our attitude to the past is less emotional, our culture different and our country has far more history to choose from. We don't have the same heritage here as there. But we do have a heritage.

Last updated: 10:54am, November 30 2011