An extreme heatwave hit Israel in May, and a forest fire near Modiin forced Manchester-born Shloimy Alman and his wife Linda to evacuate their home.
Fleeing for safety, Shloimy grabbed just three items: passports, family photo albums and boxes of colour slides of London’s old Jewish East End that he’d taken in the mid-1970s.
The slides had lived inside a tin box in Alman’s shed for more than 40 years. In a few weeks time, these never before seen images of a world that has now largely disappeared are going to be displayed in Sandy’s Row Synagogue.
Alman explains, “In my early twenties, living in Manchester and attending a Jewish Youth Workers’ conference in Stepney, I arranged to meet the Yiddish poet, Avraham Stencl, for a tour of London’s Jewish East End. My father, Moishe had previously contributed many articles to Stencl’s monthly Yiddish magazine, Loshn un Lebn.”
He was made to feel very welcome in the East End by Stencl, whose intense love of Whitechapel inspired him to start a photographic project. As they walked and talked, in Yiddish of course, Stencl pointed out places.
“People kept telling me the Jewish East End was dead, but for me, coming from Manchester, it was buzzing with life and activity. I took the photos at a time when people had already written off the East End, yet I found it to be still vibrant and functioning.”
After Alman’s first exploration of the area with Stencl, he started walking around by himself.
“Knowing that places like Commercial Road were important, I’d wander along, then see a Jewish shop name and photograph it. I remember the kosher poulterers in Hessel Street, stalls with chickens plucked and hanging from a barrow. It was still a rich Jewish landscape.
“The Jewish bakeries and all the bagel shops — Free Co, Cohens, Kossoffs and Grodzinskis — they all loved me coming in, chatting in Yiddish with them and taking a picture.” One of those poulterers is captured in the photograph above, a plucked bird dangling by his head. Another shows a mobile poultry stall.
These days, there are a couple of poulterers on Hessel Street: their signs reveal that they are ‘Muslim and Halal’. And Grodzinskis is the only one of the four bakeries that is still in business, although it is long gone from the East End.
Rachel Lichtenstein, Sandy’s Row’s resident archivist, wrote about Alman’s experience: “On Brick Lane, Shloimy photographed Jewish booksellers, newsagents, textile merchants, and on Cheshire Street, he saw the work of Jewish cabinet makers outside their workshops and he even managed to get inside Cheshire Street synagogue.”
Alman recalls: “This was a working man’s shul, they made this place with their own hands.” Cheshire Street Synagogue closed in 1987 due to a diminishing local congregation.
There are a few photos in the exhibit of Barry Roggs, an East End local who ran the long-standing deli bearing his name on Cannon Street Road. Roggs was an institution, in business for over 50 years.
In the 1940s and 1950s, he had to learn Yiddish in order to communicate with many of his customers. Alman remembers meeting Roggs in the 70s: “Barry would always be in an old vest, sticking his great hairy arms into a barrel of cucumbers which he’d pickled himself.”
Blooms, which began on Brick Lane and later moved to Whitechapel High Street, was once the oldest kosher restaurant in England. A photo of Alman’s shows its sign: “The most famous kosher restaurant in Great Britain.”
Closed in 1996, there is no blue plaque on the wall of this building or on the walls of the other structures in the area that hold such significance for the Jewish community.
Alman’s photographs capture places and perspectives that have been otherwise lost to the passing of time. He says: “I never had any pretensions about my photographic abilities. This project was very much about capturing something that was about to vanish.”
Vanished Streets is at Sandy’s Row synagogue on October 6 as part of the European Day of Jewish Culture.