How we reached the 2012 starting line

By Rachel Kolsky, August 3, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter

In the 64 years since London last hosted the Olympics, the city has experienced its share of changes. That's true for the whole capital, but also for the Jewish community, which has undergone a real shift since 1948 - and since the first London Games of 1908.

There were nearly 70 synagogues in London then, compared to more than 170 today. For Jewish tourists visiting the 1908 Olympic stadium at White City, the nearest place to daven would have been Hammersmith and West Kensington, established in 1890 and then one of London's 16 United Synagogues. A few stops away on the newly-built Central Line, they could have reached the New West End synagogue at St Petersburgh Place and rubbed shoulders with Anglo-Jewish aristocrats like the Rothschilds and Montagus. Perhaps they'd have chosen Bayswater shul, established in 1860, where Israel Gollanz was rabbi for 30 years. Pupils at Bayswater Jewish School - founded in aid of the community's so-called poorer brethren - must have been thrilled to have been so close to the action. It's likely some skipped class to watch the marathon runners make their way to the stadium.

This early 20th century west London community was vibrant and ranged from the wealthiest to those who eked out a living tailoring or as street traders, many in Portobello Road. Today, the school is called Michael Sobell Sinai, and is located in Kenton, while of the local Ashkenazi shuls, only the New West End remains. Not so far is the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue at Lauderdale Road, built in 1896 to serve the growing Sephardi community as it moved westward from Aldgate.

Ironically, not far from the stadium - demolished in 1985 for the BBC - stands Westfield, complete with a kosher dairy cafe. But in 1908 Jewish visitors would have travelled to the East End markets and shops, where bakers such as Rinkoffs and Grodzinski were among the places to go for a fresh bagel or bulka. Numerous east London salmon smokeries included those founded by the Goldstein and Forman families in 1905. Both are around to serve guests at London 2012.

A few stops from White City and they could have rubbed shoulders with Anglo-Jewish aristocrats

London of 1908 was not all sports. For entertainment, there was a feast of lectures, concerts and dances run by Jewish associations. Visitors could have attended Yiddish theatre at the Pavilion on Whitechapel Road, where they might have been among the last to see the great actor-manager Sigmund Feinman, who died in 1909. By 1908, many of the key communal organisations of today had been established, from the Board of Deputies to the Board of Guardians (now Jewish Care), and from the Home for Aged Jews (now Nightingale House) and the Jews' Free School. They catered for the growing population, which at the time numbered 140,000, with 75 per cent living in the east of the city.

By 1948 Greater London's Jewish community had swelled to 234,000, through natural growth and refugees fleeing 1930s Europe. The community had already moved in considerable numbers to the north-west and north-east suburbs, following the extensions of the Northern and Central lines. Those heading to the Games at Wembley Stadium would have been able to stop en-route at one of numerous new United Synagogue shuls along the Jubilee Line (then part of the Metropolitan Line), from Dollis Hill, established in 1929, to Cricklewood, Willesden and Wembley, all built in the 1930s.

In the north-west, shuls established since 1908 included Golders Green, Kinloss and Norrice Lea. Reform and Liberal Jews had a greater choice of central and suburban shuls, not least the flagship Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, built in 1928, and North West London Reform at Alyth Gardens established in 1933. Federation synagogues - there were 67, up from 44 in 1908 - were still firmly concentrated in east London.

A list of Beth Din supervised restaurants shows that visitors could by 1948 find kosher food "in town," as well as the East End, where most kosher shops were still concentrated. Those eateries have entered Jewish folklore… Bloom's at Old Montagu Street, Strongwaters in Black Lion Yard, Barnett's and Ostwind's bakery. Kosher hotels included Hotel Central and Stern's, both in E1. Soho was home to Folmans and the Kedassia restaurant on New Oxford Street. The Anglo-Palestine Club, established in 1920, operated from Great Windmill Street, near the Nosh Bar, which began serving salt beef in 1944. For the suburbs, 1948 was just the start, with "Grods" arriving in Haverstock Hill and Edgware in 1948, following in the footsteps of the butcher Frohwein's.

Thirteen years before the Games, the Pavilion closed. But Yiddish Theatre moved to Commercial Road at the Grand Palais where, in 1948, stars included Meir Tzelniker and Harry Ariel. The New Yiddish Theatre had relocated to the Alexandra Theatre in Stoke Newington. And established in 1932, the Jewish Museum in Bloomsbury, would have been a magnet for those seeking out the heritage of their host community.

Four decades after the first London Games, the Jewish communal infrastructure was strong. A lunch was hosted by the Union of Maccabi Associations to honour London 1948's Jewish athletes. It took place in Compayne Gardens, Swiss Cottage. The area became solidly Jewish around the Second World War, when those escaping Nazi Europe found a refuge in the bedsits and boarding houses of Belsize Park. By 1948 the supervised Winter's Hotel was in Netherhall Gardens, Hamsptead, and cafes and restaurants proudly advertised continental cuisine such as Viennese pastries, cheesecake and apple strudel.

Children of the suburban Jewish communities in north-west London, particularly Wembley and Willesden, sought autographs and glimpsed for the first time people from Africa and Asia, many of whom were billeted in local households. Schools closed early for the summer holidays as the buildings were appropriated for athletes. Lucky youngsters were chosen to be stewards at Wembley Stadium. More than six decades later, the refurbished Wembley is hosting Olympic football, badminton and rhythmic gymnastics, while those children have gone on to lead Anglo-Jewry.

As a community, have we come full circle? In 2012 the Jewish population of London is estimated at 196,000, down from it's post-war high. But there are more shuls than ever for visitors to choose from. There might only be five remaining in the East End but there are more than 60 United Synagogues, many Reform, Masorti and Liberal congregations, not to mention those serving the ever-expanding Orthodox community of Stamford Hill. Chabad houses cater to areas without synagogues, such as Highbury and Shoreditch.

Although many of the kosher landmarks of 1948 have since disappeared, Jewish ticket holders will find nourishment throughout the capital, albeit at glamorous spots such as the Selfridges food hall and a new central London salt-beef bar. The kosher traveller can indulge at a boutique hotel in Hendon and discover Jewish culture at the newly expanded Jewish Museum.

En route to the Olympic Park, visitors might stop by the heart of the Jewish East End, and just a few tube stops from Stratford. There, they will find a minyan for midweek mincha at Sandys Row Synagogue, which has been worshipping from the same premises since 1870. Not far away the historic Brick Lane Beigel Bakery, Israeli-run since 1976, has queues all hours of the day.

As we enter the Olympic Park, there is a sense of returning to our past. On the way, we pass through areas such as Aldgate, Stepney Green, Bethnal Green and around Hackney; places that will bring back our memories or at least those of our grandparents. London 2012 has put east London firmly back on the map.

Rachel Kolsky is the co-author of 'Jewish London' and a Blue Badge Tourist Guide. www.golondontours.com

Last updated: 8:45am, August 3 2012