I picked up a fascinating second-hand book recently by Abraham Levy, called East End Story – and signed by the author, nokh. It’s a collection of articles that originally appeared in the JC in 1948 under the title
“In search of the East End”.
The author recalls how the East End once housed nine-tenths of London’s Jewish population but by now (1948), after two thirds of the borough suffered very heavy bomb damage, the figures had reversed. The 25,000 Jews remaining in Stepney represented just one tenth of London’s Jews (though closer to a third of the population of Stepney). And, perhaps already sensing that this community might be soon forgotten the author reminds readers “Stepney holds as many Jews as Leeds.”
Each article in the book sheds light on a different aspect of their lives – cultural and religious involvements, work and social life. You meet Jewish librarians and poets; sellers of rhubarb and purveyors of bagels; market traders; street cleaners and dustmen. In his conclusions Levy says: “Most of them live fairly normal lives as Londoners. As Jews their communal affiliations are few…a number are drawn to a place of worship for no more than an hour a year. They are not Yom Kippur Jews, but Yiskor Jews, with perhaps one ear alert for the racing results…Their recreations are cinemas and solo, the wireless, the pools and dogs. They gamble rather more than their fellow Londoners, drink much less…Most of the residents and much of the glory may have departed from the East End, but it is still an essential part of the London Jew’s life”
Of course in 1948 many Jews were looking elsewhere and beyond Britain, never mind beyond the East End, but what was the excuse after that? Or maybe there is a direct connection - that with the idea of the new Jew in Palestine renamed Israel, the suburbs also created a new Jew. And like the Jewish state grew to be ashamed of the diaspora, many suburban Jews were ashamed of the East End at best seeing it as a location for nostalgia, rather than a location of living breathing people, struggling to maintain a decent quality of life.
People coming on my walks invariably ask me how many Jews are still living in the East End. I can’t give them an assured answer. I know that the 2001 census recorded 1800 self-identifying Jews in Stepney, most but not all of them would have been elderly. But there are also some younger Jews moving back. I’m also struck by how recently some of those who come on my walks left the East End.
Much has been written about the early 20th century and the famous struggles of the 1930s when the East End Jews put their cowering political “leaders’ to shame by having the courage and determination to unite with non-Jews to confront the Mosleyites threatening their community. But where are the books about the Jews of the East End of the 40s, 50, 60s and 70s?
PS: next walk on January 11th