I can still hear echos of the hardship of my family in the East End

Melancholic nostalgia for memories that just shaded into your life is a powerful feeling — and it’s important we don’t forget where we came from, and our forebears’ circumstances

October 05, 2023 10:52

I suppose these days they’d call it being “triggered”. And it was Josh Glancy, bright young inhabitant of this inky shtetel, that did it when he unleashed the bagel/beigel wars. 

Josh has written about this on this page, and is no doubt correct when he wrote that “beigel belonged in the crumbling Jewish cemeteries of Mile End and East Ham, a linguistic relic, an early 20th-century word that has died out with so many bubbes and zeides”. It died out in my family on the last day of May 1998 when my father, Sam, took his last breath. 

So what was my problem? Anemoia is a word made up by the writer John Koenig in 2014 when he published his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Koenig defined anemoia as a nostalgia for a time you’ve not known. But Josh set off in me a bout of neo-anemoia: a melancholy awareness of a time whose edges have just shaded into your own life.

It’s there in your recollection of how your parents spoke about events before you were born, of the books on their shelves, of the black-and-white family photographs, of their friends and relatives who visited in the days when you could barely talk. 

In 2005, my mother was in Homerton hospital in East London and (though we didn’t know it) had weeks left to live. One day, driving down Lower Clapton Road to visit her, I suddenly recognised a turning, though I hadn’t been there for decades. It was where my grandmother, Gitel (or Kate) — alone since my grandfather Morris (or Moishe) died in the months before I was born — had lived.

Every few months we used to visit her there. She was a wizened, head-scarfed, flower-smocked old lady without any teeth who gave us matzahs and whose speech was unintelligible. 

Gitel and Moishe had arrived off a boat in 1902, by which time large parts of the East End — Stepney, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green — were part of a huge and growing Jewish neighbourhood. The 1911 census found the couple plus two children (my dad came later) at an address in Swedenborg Square in the parish of St George’s.

My grandfather, a secondhand clothes repairer, marked his census with an X. Sometime after the Great War they moved to Cable Street. 

Most of this I didn’t know until I was a dad myself and started wondering about these things. But there were those shades. Like beigels bought with cream cheese at Cavours, the deli in Highgate, by a father who otherwise had no interest in food. Like my Uncle Joe’s accent, which was similar to my dad’s but more so.

Which was like the accent of some TV and film actors that my dad seemed to like more than others: Alfie Bass, Harry Landis, Bernard Bresslaw. Not a cockney accent exactly. 

Looking it up this week, I see that Abraham Basalinsky, Hyman Londinsky and — yes — Bernard Bresslaw were all born in Stepney or Bethnal Green and their dads were tailors or taxi drivers. We also had an affinity with Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and Lionel Bart. They opened their mouths, you knew their history. If you knew to know. 

They emerged from a distinct culture. As Rachel Lichtenstein, author of Rodinsky’s Room and On Brick Lane reminds us, the pre-war Jewish East End was a poverty-stricken, life-rich place, with Yiddish theatre, Yiddish newspapers, Jewish political groups, synagogues and a couple of Jewish schools. 

When Suella Braverman gave her migration speech last week to the American Enterprise Institute (introduced by a Yuval Levin), she inveighed against a “multiculturalism” that had “failed because it allowed people to come to our society and live parallel lives in it. They could be in the society but not of the society”. That was the Jewish East End. (If you want to explore its parallelness then this resource is rather wonderful.)

As Lichtenstein wrote in 2020: “Jewish Whitechapel has become a shadow realm, a theatre of memory…Today only the faintest whispers of the rich Jewish past in the area remain, most are on the verge of disappearing or have disappeared completely.” Which is pretty much what Josh said.

But something cries out to be recalled. Because of my neo-anemoia, I was brought up in a kind of proximity to my grandparents’ alien status and aware of the poverty that my dad had experienced for the first 20 years of his life.

The next generation down doesn’t even have this (and why would they want it?). Let them eat their bagels in Radlett. 

On the edge of memory, however, the largest Jewish community in Britain was poor and despised. We never want to live like that again; but we should never forget that once we did. 

October 05, 2023 10:52

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