For those seeking something joyous during a national quarantine: herrings, salmon, stories and schmaltz — I have lovely news for you: it is now possible to tour the streets of London’s old Jewish East End without even leaving your sofa. Launching this week is an online, interactive map that allows you to explore sites of Jewish memory. Clicking on a place of interest— synagogue, school, street — you’ll have immediate access to recorded reminiscences, photos and short essays telling the stories behind the buildings and thoroughfares in this area.
One of my favourite aspects of the new website is the audio interviews with former East End residents; for me, these really bring the old London Jewish neighbourhood to life. There is something about hearing real people speaking, telling a multitude of stories in their strong East End accents. One woman recounts: “I remember on Goulston Street, the stalls — a herring stall: barrels with pickled herrings and anchovy herrings. You can’t see those anymore now, the anchovy herrings. It was happy.” And from another: “Wentworth Street (just off Brick Lane) had everything. What you couldn’t get on Wentworth Street, you couldn’t get anywhere in the world.”
And yet another: “On Brick Lane, there was a lady, she was always selling beigels from a basket, a tuppence a piece.”
The map is a collaboration between the artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein and professors Duncan Hay, Laura Vaughn and Peter Guillery, who work within three different research units at the Bartlett Faculty for the Built Environment, at University College, London: It builds on the Survey of London’s Whitechapel project, with its emphasis on mapping buildings, architectural records, and people’s own contributed recollections. “We aim to create a lasting document, and we attempt to bring the stories and memories of this vanishing landscape to new audiences,” says Lichtenstein. So far they have identified 70 sites that consistently occur in people’s recollection of the Jewish East End.
Lichtenstein, who has worked in the East End for over 30 years, adds: “In the time I’ve been working in the East End, I’ve seen almost all tangible traces of Jewish heritage just disappear, close down, shut down, turned into something else. There’s hardly anything left. And how do you tell that story if you don’t have a physical museum in the area?
“One way is this project, which allows you to immerse yourself in the area and architecture, even if you cannot physically visit.”
Scrolling through the site, I enjoy being transported back to a different time; when Whitechapel and Spitalfields were the epicentres of a bustling and booming Jewish community, when Yiddish was the main language being spoken on the streets. Shetl music plays in the background when I click on one of the links. I am suddenly nostalgic for a time I have never known — a time when Blooms restaurant had queues out the door and beigels and herrings were sold in barrels on Brick Lane.
A few days ago, when Lichtenstein posted a link to the audio recordings on “The Jewish East End of London” Facebook group, one man, David Shaffer, made an immediate connection. “I started listening and suddenly I recognised my aunt’s voice. If she hadn’t died last year, she would have been 100 yesterday. Thank you.”
You can visit the map here: https://jewisheastendmemorymap.org and listen to a collection of the audio recordings here: https://soundcloud.com/user-887101577/memory-map-of-the-jewish-east-end