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Crowd turns out for the Great Yiddish Parade in London's East End

Marchers chant and sing Yiddish songs at event recreating famous rally of Jewish workers nearly 130 years ago

    The marchers in period costume parade through Whitechapel
    The marchers in period costume parade through Whitechapel Photo: Ralph Hodgson

     The East End of London rang out to cries of frayhayt and glaykhkayt on Sunday as Yiddish was once again heard on the streets of Whitechapel. 

    Chanting for “freedom” and “equality” and clutching banners bearing Yiddish slogans, a crowd of 50 people marched down the busy Whitechapel Road towards Mile End, the area that 100 years ago thousands of Jews called home.

    Singing from Yiddish-language song sheets accompanied by a klezmer band, they stopped off to listen to speeches delivered in both Yiddish and English, breaking out into occasional shouts “What do we want? Frayhayt! When do we want it? Yetst!”

    This was the Great Yiddish Parade, a recreation of a march that took place  in 1889, when East London was gripped by strikes. It was a time of high unemployment, miserable working conditions miserable and low wages. Hundreds of Jewish workers, most of them tailors employed on low wages, flooded onto the streets in a show of working-class defiance.

    “We wanted to bring these songs to life,” explained Yiddish historian Dr Vivi Lachs, whose research led to the discovery of these songs and speeches. “Their message of resistance is still so pertinent today.”

    “I was overwhelmed – and delighted – by the turnout,” says Dr Nadia Valman, one of the organisers.

    Voices were raised in a spirited rendition of Di Tsukunft (The Future) with the marchers singing:  “Alzo, mutik in di rayen, in di rayen, tsu bafrayen, tsu bafrayen a banayen, undzer alte velt” (“So, courage in the ranks, in the ranks, to free, to release and renew our old world”).

    As the procession wound down Whitechapel Road, past Bangladeshi shops, curious store-owners came out to look, listen to the music and shake the hands of those celebrating the lives of the people who once lived here.

    “The great culture of the East End that was produced in Yiddish has never been available in translation before — all of those cultural traditions have been forgotten,” said Dr Valman, a reader in English literature and history of East London at the Queen Mary University, who came in Victorian dress together with her children, Orlando, 12, and Lucian, nine. 

    “It’s pretty cool that these songs are being sung on the streets of London for the first time in more than 100 years,” said Orlando, who played the drum along to the tunes performed by Katsha’nes. The band’s repertoire included Die Shvue, the anthem of the Bund — the Jewish socialist party from eastern Europe — as well as resistance songs written in London between 1886 and 1892.

    Among the marchers were klezmer enthusiasts, local residents and East End historians.

    “Secular Yiddish has been lost in our generation – but there is potential for people to become interested in it again,” said Stephen Ogin, an academic at the University of Surrey with aninterest in Yiddish and klezmer.

    “This type of music is becoming a little more mainstream — hopefully that will lead to people wanting to learn about the language and our history.”

    Local resident Jonathan Lass, who picked up some Yiddish from his German-speaking parents, said: “It was great to come along. East London is changing so much so it’s important to recall our heritage.”

    Fellow marcher Michael Ellman, from Islington, said: “I’m a big fan of klezmer. It’s interesting to see that the language having a revival.”

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