Life & Culture

My memories of kosher Soho and the Jewish wave of the 1920s

I spent my pre-school years toddling through the market with my father, who grew up in Berwick Street in a tenement flat he proudly pointed up to on every visit


Westminster Council is advertising for new traders for Berwick Street market, a hub of Jewish life for two decades either side of the war and a landmark in London trading for 200 years. News of this revitalisation has been greeted with derision by the street's remaining veteran Jewish trader, but for me it merely provoked nostalgia.

I spent my pre-school years toddling through the market with my father, who grew up in Berwick Street in a tenement flat he proudly pointed up to on every visit, assuring me the building was known as Goldberg Towers. I certainly felt my dad, a bookmaker who was out and about settling the previous day's bets with his old neighbours, was king of the hill - everyone in the market seemed to know him.

Manny Goldberg, one of a new Jewish wave who grew up in Soho in the 1920s after their parents fled the pogroms, was barmitzvahed at the West End Great Synagogue before it evolved from shteibl to a smart Dean Street shul, and attended its Pulteney School in Peter Street. He and his brother Lou moonlighted as "eccentric" dancers at the London Pavilion and my father danced socially at the Café de Paris, winning many ballroom trophies. Their big brother Kaye was a musician with Geraldo's band, and many of their cousins also played professionally, part of a younger Soho generation who favoured show business over tailor's chalk.

However, none were as famous as Jessie Matthews, the best friend of my Auntie Belle. Born above the butcher's at 94 Berwick Street, she would go on to play the title part for decades in Mrs Dale's Diary. Virginia Woolf may have been too posh to live in Berwick Street, but she certainly shopped there for silk stocking seconds and wrote about its "fierce light" and "raw voices". The actor Laurence Harvey worked as a dishwasher at Jack Fox's salt beef bar before getting his big break.

Jewish historian Gerry Black documented the area in his book Living Up West, with one former resident remembering "seven or eight grocers and five butcher shops in a distance of 100 yards. All Jewish, all kosher - it was a ghetto."

Revival of the market has come 25 years too late

Poor Jews, he remembered, used to go with a jug to a trader called Jack Bick, who only sold eggs: "For a penny he would throw in 8-10 eggs; the women used to make lockshen and cakes with them." In the yard beside his house was a live cow from whom the family obtained five pints of milk daily, courtesy of a dairyman who drew it fresh from the udder while they waited.

Black interviewed one or two of the tailors (not my grandfather, who spent much of his time running a Yiddish theatre) who used to sit cross-legged in the windows of their workshops: "They always pointed out they were 'high-class' tailors - there was this perception that the Jews of the West End were a bit higher class than those of the East End," recalls Gerry today.

Black's wife, Anita, née Abrahams, has her own, razor-sharp recollections of the area towards the end of its Jewish heyday: "My sister and I had a shop on the corner of Broadwick Street and Berwick Street selling luggage, handbags, china and glass for about seven years from 1970.

"There were still Jewish traders, but not all the dress shops and the 'madams' who used to run them; before the war, there was one after the other. We took over our own shop from Faith Gilbert, who had been there 40 years, one of five or six siblings whose parents ran a grocery shop in St. Anne's Court.

"There was still a kosher butcher in D'Arblay Street, a fish stall in the market where you could get carp for gefilte fish, two Jewish-owned shoe shops, a deli owned by Henry Jolson, two fabric shops and Klein's trimmings store."

There were less salubrious Jewish traders, too, she remembers, including an orange seller who injected his fruit with water before opening up the stall to present them as extra-juicy - "'a glass of wine in every orange', he used to call out!" - and a prostitute who explained to Anita that she needed her illegal gains to pay the fees at her son's "very good" private school. "Before my time in Berwick Street there were several ladies of the night working above Jolson's," she says. "Henry moved heaven and earth to get them moved, because the building was quite close to the school in Peter Street, which had a lot of Jewish kids."

There was even a pub run by very Orthodox Jews in Wardour Street, she adds: "Their name was Mann, and they were not the only Jewish publicans in London."

In his book, Black lists the Blue Posts pub in Berwick Street, where Hannah Barnett was licensee in the 1930s, and interviewees remember pickled and schmaltz herring being freely available, with the upstairs bar made kosher for Pesach so Jewish regulars could continue their patronage through the holidays.

One Jewish firm that rose to great heights on Berwick Street was the fabric shop opened in 1932 by my father's friend Max Borovick - whose dancing eyebrows were a feature of all my trips to Berwick Street - his brother Harry and their father, Solomon.

Max's nephew Martin has his own memories of the street's Jewish heritage when he came to the business, documented as Berwick Street's second oldest shop, in 1958: "At lunchtime it was like Petticoat Lane on a Sunday morning - jam-packed - and that went on until 20 or 30 years ago, when the cost of a West End stall escalated.

"We had two stalls outside; we were known for importing fabrics from Japan and America as well as Europe, and commissioned our own, spun in Leicester. We were big suppliers to theatre and film, working with Berman's the costumiers. I personally remember working on fabrics for the black and white scene in My Fair Lady and for Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof.

"We still do theatre and film, and every time a production of Mamma Mia! opens anywhere in the world, they get in contact. Abba's designers used to come over every six weeks or so to buy fabrics for the band - they liked the glitzy stuff, the stretch satins and a chiffon with a gold and silver stripe we had kept in stock for 40 years and persuaded the French manufacturer to remake. We have also been supplying EuroDisney for years."

Down the street, remembers Borovick, Faye Peltz was supplying a rather different clientele: "She was one of the few Jewish traders left, and sold bras and knickers for all the girls round here; they were true ladies back in those days, always asking me how I was when I passed by."

But along with its seediness, Berwick Street gradually lost its stalls and market traders, sighs Borovick, evolving into a street food destination he does not approve of: "Too many stalls set up quickly every day, people queueing for two hours to the detriment of the restaurants and cafés.

"Reviving the market is 25 years too late in my opinion; when it was first proposed, they were going to make a nice little garden out the back, but someone objected and that was that. I'm in favour of modernisation but not the gentrification I fear will come; there's a building opposite that would have been demolished in another era that is being converted to a 93-bedroom hotel.

"However, at least they're going to put in lighting, which may bring us the footfall that you get down Wardour Street. But I question the need for a market here and I wouldn't mind if it closed."

Berwick Street may well not evolve beyond its current incarnation as a foodie destination - fashionable restaurants like Polpetto, Ember Yard and Duck and Rice have made it a fixture on the foodie map.

However, that is not exactly out of keeping with its heritage. The market is, after all, where tomatoes were introduced to London in 1880, followed by grapefruit 10 years later, and the only place outside a chemist's shop where Elizabeth David and other post-war pioneers of Mediterranean food could buy olive oil to cook with in the 1950s.

Not that this would have cut the mustard in Goldberg Towers, where the cooking medium du jour was strictly schmaltz.

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