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East Enders continue long running story-line

Jewish life still thrives in a Stepney centre

    Where synagogues once stood there are now mosques. Butchers are halal rather than kosher and the shmutter trade has been supplanted by Bangladeshi and Somalian businesses.

    But elements of vibrant Jewish East End life remain, not least down a side street close to Stepney Green tube station.

    Jewish Care’s Brenner Centre at Stepney Community Centre attracts many born within earshot of Bow Bells who have chosen to remain in the area.

    The Cockney dialect resonates, banter is sharp and the laughter seems almost in surround sound. The warmth generated is only partly attributable to the heating.

    Women come dressed in their most glamorous apparel — twin sets, fur jackets. Even walking sticks are co-ordinated with the day’s outfit. Men are significantly outnumbered and struggle to get a word in edgeways. All want to keep the past alive, as well as maintaining Jewish traditions, such as the Seder held when I visited. 

    “We put on one every year,” explained Jamie Field, Jewish Care’s East London locality manager. “This year we have about 50 members here. Last year it was more but sadly the community is getting smaller and smaller.”

    Although Marie Joseph, 95, moved to Loughton 16 years ago to be closer to family, she volunteers at the centre twice a week. For her, it is a way of staying connected to the East End and while she talks of “ailments”, she certainly does not look her age as she prepares tea and coffee.

    “It was wonderful,” she said reminiscing about the heyday of Jewish life in the area. “We all knew each other.”

    By the time she moved out, “the Jewish community had left. There was nothing really there for me. But I come back because this is where I’m from, it is in my blood.”

    She describes herself as “a Stepney girl”, meaning “someone who was brought up tough and able to get up and go out there on your own.

    “We were poor, the war made it hard for us, but we stuck together as a community.

    “There was the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. There was always something going on.

    “It would take me five hours just to do my shopping because you’d bump into everyone along the way.

    “When you were a housewife you’d come out onto your balcony and you’d chat to the other women either side of you. It was great.”

    Marie Posner, 85, said the centre “is like my home here. You go out now to Whitechapel, Brick Lane, and it has all changed. There aren’t any Jews there. The synagogues have gone. It is just how life goes. We ain’t got a Jewish shop around now.”

    The East End community was like no other, she reflected. “We clung together more. We all lived in flats and every single neighbour of mine was Jewish. We were poor but it didn’t matter. We helped each other out and we made it work. People move away and they get snobby. Not me or my family — we live here.”

    The opinions of friends Beattie Orwell and Millie Finger, both 100, were recently shared with a wider audience when they featured in a Channel 4 promotion marking the centenary of the women’s vote.

    When her daughter died a few years ago, involvement in the centre gave Ms Finger reason to live.

    Her recollections of East End life include the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 against Oswald Mosley’s fascists.

    “Sometimes we couldn’t walk down the street without someone shouting at us. They used to say ‘go back to your own country’.”

    “What were they talking about? Mrs Orwell interjected. “We’re bloody British.”She added that the centre “is our family” and the Seder meal was just one example of Jewish activity she would otherwise no longer experience.

    Another participant was Marion Davies, who arrived in a black outfit and Anna Wintour-style sunglasses.

    She said fashion and the glamour were a staple of the Jewish East End.

    “I used to work in Petticoat Lane market. It was the only market open on a Sunday and I’d stand outside the shop trying to get people to come in.

    “It was fantastic, like a comedy theatre,” she added, still sporting her shades.

    “I would say to the women walking past ‘I know exactly what you’re looking for’. But I had no idea.

    “It wouldn’t stop them buying from me. They would leave saying ‘I came out for a challah and I’ve walked away with a red dress’.”Attending the centre was her “medicine. It keeps me going. I see more people here than I do any other time in the week.”

    What did she miss most?

    “Oh, the cholent. It was cooked in advance of Shabbat and kept warm. The smell of it would be everywhere. I can still remember it.”

The Jewish Chronicle

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