As an Aussie living in the UK, Jewish London means North-West London —the kosher restaurants, bakeries and delis lining the streets of Golders Green and the synagogues dotted around Hendon, Hampstead and Finchley.
So it was an eye-opening sunny Friday afternoon spent learning about the capital’s centuries of Jewish history in the East End and what is now the heart of the financial community.
The Jews of London is a self-guided walking tour, informatively documented by the United Synagogue (group tours have been a casualty of the pandemic).
It’s a great way for out-of-towners to discover the city and its Jewish history.
In three hours, I was transported on a journey back in time, beginning at a public balcony on the brutalist Barbican Estate and ending around the narrow streets of old Spitalfields.
Each of the 15 stops on the free tour was accompanied by a podcast of between four and six minutes, delivered to studio standard by Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum and US strategic projects lead Ben Vos.
Every episode documented an aspect of historical Jewish experience and its connection to the stop.
Despite covering more than 800 years — from the genesis of Jewish life in 1070 to the conclusion of the Second World War — nothing seemed rushed or glossed over. Nor were the podcasts a dull litany of facts.
Some were thematic, focusing on topics such as work and education during a specific era. Others had a more narrative structure, with the stories of notable individuals, groups and organisations interwoven.
As a politics enthusiast, I particularly enjoyed learning about Britain’s first Jewish parliamentarians, as well as how refugees and immigrants from places like France and Czarist Russia — where my own family originated — went from outsiders subjected to antisemitic abuse to integrated members of British society.
Many of the stopping points, which ranged from civic buildings to markets and schools, on the face of it seemed of scant specific relevance. Given the surrounding landscape, one would never assume a significant connection to Jewish history.
However, what was once a synagogue frequented by French refugees in the East End is now the Brick Lane Mosque. A building formerly housing a prominent shul is now part of an Aldgate primary school. And where Jewish tailors once sold their wares, market stalls are now run mostly by members of Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community.
The connections were brought to life by the storytelling of Rabbi Birnbaum and Mr Vos.
Bottled water and sensible shoes are trip essentials. And on a cautionary note, the podcasts, maps and some additional resources are all hosted on a website, so tour takers will need sufficient data and charge on their phone. Those without access to 4G will struggle, as public Wi-Fi along the route is patchy and slow at best.
It would be more user friendly if the maps, podcasts and additional materials were hosted on a more compact app that did not require an internet connection.
However, none of these qualms should detract from the impressive job the US has done on the project.
I came away with a renewed appreciation of our community, its history and our valued place in the capital today. And if more stops and podcasts were added, I would happily take the tour again.