Jewish history 'airbrushed' from Brick Lane

November 24, 2016 22:54

Psst! Don't tell anyone wearing a JC staff badge, but I've just been reading the London Jewish News - hey, it's free, so why not? - and therein came across quite an interesting little story concerning allegations that Tower Hamlets borough council is 'airbrushing' the past by failing to mention four centuries of Jewish history in Brick Lane as part of its planned East End Cultural Trail.

We deserve a mention, you'd have thought. After all, despite the last few Jewish businesses in the area having left years ago as Jewish residents moved onward and upward to the North-Western suburbs and beyond, many people still think of bagels and salt beef sandwiches when they think of Brick Lane. Last time I was there - a couple of years ago - there appeared to be just one bagel shop left which most certainly didn't seem to be under Jewish ownership nor staffed by Jewish people; I didn't buy anything because of the presence of bacon bagels on the menu, which always seems so fundamentally wrong to me that it often leaves me a near emotional wreck, a state often lasting for several hours. OK, I admit it, all sorts of bills of fare, signs and advertisements have a similar sort of effect on me. I've been known to display symptoms associated with imminent nervous breakdown upon seeing signs offering such goods for sale as 'sandwich's, drink's, mobile top-up's' and suchlike, and can claim in my defence only that pedantry is a victimless crime.

These days, many of those visitors to Brick Lane - be they Londoners or tourists - are there for one reason alone. Curry. The street is lined along almost its entire length with curry houses offering every style of curry you've ever heard of, along with subcontinental specialities the likes of which even a seasoned curry addict such as myself has never dreamed (I'm thinking in particular of an almost unspeakably divine tandoori trout served with coconut-flavoured dal and naan breads seemingly made of garlic-flavoured clouds here, a dish upon which I can only assume they dine almost daily in Heaven). Almost all of the curry houses are owned and staffed by Bangladeshis, some of whom are immigrants and some of whom can count themselves every bit as British as can I, and it is to them that Brick Lane - commonly known these days as Banglatown - now belongs, as do those premises that do not serve curry and instead sell exotic fruits, aromatic spices and sari fabrics in colours and patterns that form a stunning contrast to the dirty Victorian bricks of the ugly buildings. It's a heady, eye-pleasing, exciting place; a fact that is all the more astounding when one remembers the poverty in which many of the area's new residents live.

Back when Brick Lane belonged to us, it was a very different place. There were no cultural trails in those days, no museums, no multicultural friendship organisations. Hygiene was almost non-existent as the infrastructure had little to recommend it over that found in other parts of the capital pre-Bazalgette and the local sewer rats must have been glad to have been treif, because otherwise they may well have found themselves used as a valuable source of protein for the poverty-stricken humans whose street they shared. Families of ten or more were crammed into tiny, dirty, poorly-built rooms. There are still large families in Brick Lane, and the badly-built buildings still stand - but in this day and age, the council must provide accommodation of a certain standard (a standard which might shock many of us, but which would nevertheless have been thought little short of palatial by the average Jewish Brick Lane resident circa 1910), and the buildings have been improved so that they no longer appear to be in constant danger of unannounced collapse. Jewish Brick Lane was not the hanoe and fantastisch shtetl that some people would have you believe. Anybody who has read Rachel Lichtenstein's Rodinsky's Room will have an impression of the squalor. A century later and the street is a far more pleasant place to live; but it is also far from ideal and its modern occupants dream of a better life in better housing, and so they work hard and they save in order to offer a better life to they children, just as our own grandparents did. Brick Lane is not yet an urban Utopia for the vast majority of those who have little choice but to live there, though for those who choose to - and who could afford to live anywhere they wish, such as artist Tracey Emin - it's the most fashionable London address of them all. The Bangladeshi community has its own Rachel Lichtenstein, armed with a torch to illuminate the dark and grimy corners, in the shape of Monica Ali, author of the grim and gritty 2003 novel Brick Lane which comes every bit as recommended as Lichtenstein's own work.

By the time one reaches the second paragraph of the LJN article, it becomes apparent that the story is a little bit of a storm in teacup - Tower Hamlets council is spending £1.85 million on the cultural trail which, they say, will form tribute to the Huguenots who called Brick Lane home when Brick Lane first came into being, the Jewish immigrants that followed them and the Bangladeshis that live there now, and the controversy is not over Jews being airbrushed out but over planned architectural arches in the shape of the head scarves worn by many Muslim women. Precisely why anybody should object to such a feature remains a mystery - they sound rather impressive, and it is to be hoped the designer will take his or her cue from the outstandingly beautiful architecture to be found in many Muslim countries. Opposition couldn't possibly just be another example of Islamophobia, could it, as 'indigenous Britons' (whoever they may be) once again work themselves into a right old tizz over the latest wave of immigrants to cause a change in British society and culture, before becoming assimilated and accepted into that very society that will become all the richer for it, just as was the case with us and the African-Caribbean people that came here a decade or two before the Asians? Anyway, are the arches really worth getting so hot and bothered about? Give it a generation or two and they'll be almost forgotten, just like the Machzikei HaDath Great Synagogue and the peeling Yiddish words and Jewish names that can sometimes be seen when a shop front is stripped of its modern garb, just another interesting historical clue to the people that used to live there. The Great Synagogue is now the Great London Mosque, but one day - probably while many of us are still around to see it - the Bangladeshis will have made their fortunes and moved on to their own version of Golders Green, at which point it may well become an East European Church or a civic centre serving whichever is the next ethnic community to continue the cycle.

We don't need our own version of the head scarf arches (a traffic roundabout in the shape of a yarmulke? Roadside bollards formed of plaited strands of metal, like iron challah?) and the Huguenots who were there before our ancestors don't need a monument either, because the fact that there are no Jews still living in Brick Lane's cramped and decaying flats and bedsits is tribute enough both to us, to our hard-working ethics and to the British nation that gave us a chance to improve our lot and move on. There is no warning that must be served to future generations; merely a reminder by our very absence that, if one chooses and is willing to make the effort, one's circumstances may be improved.

November 24, 2016 22:54

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