Farewell to Yiddish in London's East End

A literary circle dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish for 75 years held its final meeting in the East End of London on Saturday afternoon.

Weekly attendance at the Friends of Yiddish, founded by British Jewry's best-known Yiddish poet, A N Stencl, had dwindled to just a handful, with age and the exodus of the Jewish population from what was once the epicentre of Yiddish London having taken its toll.

But around 20 people gathered one last time at Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel, concluding their proceedings by singing Oseh Shalom, the final verse of the Kaddish.

"It left a sweet and poignant taste in everyone's mouth," said Chaim Neslen, 73, from Ilford, Essex, who has been running the Friends since the mid-'90s.

The Friends, however, have not quite closed the book on Yiddish. Mr Neslen is hoping to resurrect the group in a more central venue such as the Jewish Museum.

"I am trying to arrange it for a weekday evening once a month, for people who couldn't come during the weekend or wouldn't come on Shabbat because it was too far for them," he said.

"There is a phrase in Yiddish which talks about a farshvindene velt, a vanished world. We're working to make sure that Yiddish in England is not a farshvindene velt."

Stencl, a refugee from Germany who came to London in 1936, founded a Yiddish journal called Loshen und Leben (Language and Life).

The Friends have traditionally begun meetings with a reading from Stencl, and Mr Neslen opened the final East End meeting with one of a series of poems lamenting the fading of Jewish life in the area after the war.

But still, Mr Neslen explained, the poet felt that on a Friday afternoon when people were doing their pre-Shabbat shopping in Petticoat Lane, you could "get a whiff of how it used to be".

Khayke Beruriah Wiegand, lector in Yiddish at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, said: "Friends of Yiddish was a real institution in the life of East End Jews." 

She is one of a younger generation of Yiddishists, who runs a monthly circle for some 10-20 people in her own home. "Meetings include Yiddish conversation, poetry and often some wild singing and vodka drinking," she said.

Last updated: 1:37pm, June 30 2011