Vivi Lachs

Forgotten Yiddish literature is a peephole to a vanished world

The arrival of Eastern European Jews in the mid-1880s led to London becoming a hive of Yiddish culture, now all but lost

August 22, 2022 09:44

The immigration of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe from the mid-1880s transformed London’s East End into a bustling Yiddish centre, complete with its own theatre, press and publishing house. By the mid-1930s, the movement out of the East End had diminished the size of the community.

The Yiddish culture that animated that world has all but vanished today, and there are scores of old Yiddish newspapers, songbooks, story collections and poetry books that refer to our London past, barely touched in archives and libraries. They hide treasures that enlarge our understanding of this vibrant society that was constantly trying to improve life, find new ways to be Jewish in England and bringing up children in a different environment.

Prominent debates affecting Jewish East Enders concerned work and poverty, religion and secularisation, Yiddish culture and language, ideologies and politics, antisemitism and combating fascism. Reams of articles appeared in the press, yet it is in the popular culture that we find surprising and entertaining engagement with these debates. The fiction writers, satirists, Yiddish theatre songwriters, playwrights and poets were popular, prolific and controversial, and their contributions showcased a range of perspectives.

The socialist radical writer Morris Winchevsky’s poem “London Bay Nakht” was published in 1884 in the London Yiddish newspaper Der Poylisher Yidl. It describes poverty in London and attacks the Jewish authorities for their inadequate support of the most vulnerable. The poem begins with a description of streetlamps that illuminate London’s streets and walls, with the purpose of providing a clear view of what happens in London at night. Each subsequent verse explores what the lamps do not reveal. These are the poorest people who are hidden from view: an orphan girl outside the London Hospital who has just become the only family breadwinner; an unemployed Yiddish actor reduced to poverty; a homeless man wandering through the Whitechapel streets at night with nowhere to stop due to the rulings of the Vagrancy Act; a lonely new immigrant without a family.

Winchevsky’s political points are clearly targeted. The new immigrant struggles because he is “ too new” to get help from the Londoner Komite Layt, here referring to the Jewish Board of Guardians who would only offer support to immigrants who had been in the country for six months. In the final verse, the streetlamps become symbols and a political statement:

Zey zenen vi komite layt
tsum shaynen nor gezetst,
un zen nit, un visn nit
der shukh bay vemen kvetsht.
(They are like committee members / Just placed there to shine, / Without seeing, without knowing / Whose shoe pinches.)

The comedian and writer Arn Nager’s music-hall song “Freg Keyn Katshanes, es iz England” (“Don’t ask Silly Questions, this is England”) was performed on the London music-hall stage and published in the songbook Der londoner lider magazin in around 1900. It poses the question of whether it was possible for an Orthodox immigrant to remain religious in London. Each verse identifies another problem, in true music-hall style: the difficulty finding work; having to work on Shabbat in order to eat; the strangeness of the Anglo-Jewish synagogues, which look like churches; and finally, the Orthodox lodger with his hat and sidelocks, horrified when he is left alone in a room with his landlady.

The Orthodox strictures against being alone with a woman were proven prudent, as she seduces him. The humour is directed at the lodger who is seen as naïve, not only in matters of sex, but in wanting to maintain Orthodox Jewish law in England. The chorus, spoken by an anglicised neighbour, runs:

Freg nit keyn katshanes, es iz england
vos toyg mir di tanes, es iz england
ales iz kapoyer do geshtelt…
(“Don’t ask silly questions, this is England/What’s the use of complaining, this is England/Everything here is upside down.”)

London’s Yiddish best-selling writer Katie Brown came to London aged 12 as Gitl Bakon, at the turn of the 20th century. She wrote almost 200 sketches about East End life, published in most of the London Yiddish newspapers and journals between 1925 and 1955. Although every reviewer found it necessary to remind the reader that Katie Brown’s funny, readable and incisive stories were not aesthetic literature and had a female sensibility, she utterly disarmed her readers and critics alike. As the reviewer Alegorye remarked: “We have often read Katie’s sketches that make us feel embarrassed because it seems as if we are seeing a known figure or type of person. And it also seems like you are seeing something that has a direct connection to yourself, and you therefore feel like you have accidentally stumbled upon a mirror and seen your own comic, distorted nose. And it annoys you, and you smile at the foolishness and laugh with everyone.”

In a number of her stories, Brown uses a fictional family to highlight antagonism between the immigrant generation and their children. Mothers and children do battle, amongst other things, on their different approaches to politics, religion and Yiddish culture. The older children, however, often being the only wage earners in the family, win the argument, as Rachel in “Breadwinners” confronts her mother:

“‘Mum’, Rachel warned, ‘remember that if you meddle in my business I’ll leave home like I’ve done before. And you’ll have to pay for the radio, the sewing machine, the furniture, and the insurance agent all by yourself again. Remember, you’ll be sorry, and you’ll come round to me and beg and cry for me to come home. Be careful, Mum before it’s too late. Because this time I won’t feel sorry for you’.”

Arye Myer Kaizer had come to London as a three-year-old with his family in 1895. His father was a Chasidic kabbalist rabbi. Kaizer left the East End but wrote scores of satirical sketches about synagogue and community politics in the 1930s. He knew the immigrant ghetto as intimately as he knew Stamford Hill and Golders Green.

In “M’klaybt Khazonim” (“Choosing Cantors”) he produced a belly-laugh tale of synagogue members trying to make a decision about which cantor to employ based on their extra skills, whether a comedian, an engineer or a doctor. His “Az ir Geyt in Idishn Teater” (“When You Go to a Yiddish Theatre”) teaches you how to behave in a Yiddish theatre and not lose your seat despite the monkey nuts and watermelons, and how to get the attention of a landsman down in the stalls. “Dort vu s’bulbet zikh” (“There Where it Bubbles”) has you laughing aloud at the pompous and excited donors to a community soup kitchen describing their favourite foods.

In 1947, the writer Yehude Isomer Lisky produced a novella called “Melokhe Bezuye” (“A Humiliating Profession”). In it, he rails against how London Jewry treated their Yiddish writers. He described well-known community machers, thinly veiled with different names.

A Jewish Chronicle article on Lisky in 1949 stated: “He threw down a challenge to the Jewish community… for neglecting the writers and artists in their midst.”

As I was researching in the archives of the National Library of Israel, I came across a letter in Yiddish that made me catch my breath. Towards the end of a letter from the London Yiddish poet Joseph Hillel Lewy (Levi) to the Yiddish writer Melech Ravitch, Lewy adds: “Other news, a recent literary sensation.

“The young novelist Lisky has written a novel Melokhe Bezuye and has rather ruffled the feathers of the London community, even though it was felt that he said it as it was for political activists, community activists, poets and journalists.

“It’s gone so far that the printer won’t print it for fear of libel. In the meantime, the poor author languishes in poverty with no money and no book. It’s heartbreaking.”

Our homegrown London Yiddish history is precious. The peepholes we get through the literature itself and reviews and letters expose a community that is struggling with changing cultures and ideologies, anglicising to British norms, feisty, funny and fiercely passionate.

Dr Vivi Lachs is research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, the author of ‘Whitechapel Noise’ and ‘London Yiddishtown’ and a Yiddish performer.

This essay began as a talk in the National Library of Israel series, ‘In Her Majesty’s Kingdom — Celebrating the Rich History of Anglo-Jewry’. Other talks — on A Tour of Anglo-Jewish History, 1656 to the Present and Sharing the Stories of Sephardi Jews in Britain — are now online and the remaining talks in the series will also be at

August 22, 2022 09:44

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