Nov 2003 Journal

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Speak, memory!

Only a generation ago a novel entitled Brick Lane - Monica Ali's entry for this year's Booker Prize - would have been about the Jewish East End. However, in the twenty-first century, with E1 'rebranded' as Bangla Town to reflect the current inhabitants, the memory of what was once Anglo-Jewry's heartland is rapidly fading. That phenomenon only lives on in folklore, or in schmaltzy artefacts like the Wolf Mankowitz-scripted film A Kid for Two Farthings.

I only had a fleeting acquaintance with the East End in its interwar glory days. It was a balmy Saturday evening in June 1939 and, newly arrived in London, I sauntered along the Whitechapel Road in the company of my newly adopted uncle. It seemed as if the entire local population was taking the air, promenading to and fro in animated, noisily chattering groups that overflowed the pavement. I was surprised to see hoardings covered in placards advertising Yiddish plays in big Hebrew letters; the instructions on how to activate public water hydrants in case of fire were likewise in Hebrew.

Our walk took us past several East End landmarks. One building pointed out to me mysteriously as the shvitz had nothing to do with Schwyzerdütsch: it turned out to be a Turkish bath. Another was the Jews' Temporary Shelter, where immigrants who had come ashore at the nearby London Docks received food and lodging during their first few days in the new country. The third was the 'Union', i.e. the local office of the Tailors' and Garment Workers' Union.

In those days the rag trade was the main source of employment for East Enders. (By this I mean Jewish East Enders; non-Jews worked at the Docks, Hanbury's Brewery, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry or Spitalfields Market.) There was, of course, another market - Petticoat Lane, filled with bustle, noise and colour - in which Jews participated massively on Sunday mornings.

But Whitechapel amounted to more than a place for work and business. Israel Zangwill, an alumnus of the Jews' Free School, wrote Children of the Ghetto, pioneering a new literary genre, Mark Gertler's painterly skills took him from the East End to 'Bloomsbury', and Isaak Rosenberg became one of the tragically short-lived Great War poets.

Nor was scholarship neglected. When the mathematician Selig Brodetzky gained the distinction of Senior Wrangler at Cambridge the East End had a secular yomtov. Jewish Studies, as pursued in countless local chedarim, also proved their value: at the Palace of Westminster Phil Piratin, Communist MP for Stepney and a non-graduate, once countered a Latin tag quoted by a Tory member with a retort couched in Biblical Hebrew.

But the East End's real gift of tongues lay in Yiddish. I still treasure the insults thrown at me by fellow garment workers because of my slowness - bon mots like Er macht un a tzimmes (He is preparing a carrot dish on a low flame) or As er nait geit a roich (When he sews smoke rises). In one workplace a tailor enjoyed great respect on account of his brother's, the violinist Albert Sandler's, frequent appearance on the radio. At teabreak once, a worried-looking presser showed Sandler a slip of paper bearing the name of his wife's illness, and asked his opinion of its severity. The tailor stared at the word intently and finally commented: Ma soll nisht heren fun solche sachen (One shouldn't hear of such things).

Mameloshen could also be wonderfully economical. Leaving work one evening I was accosted by a caftan-clad stranger with the words Ma bedarf a mensch (We are short of a tenth man). Those four worlds implied 'We need a tenth man to make up a minyan to offer prayers for a recently deceased person.' Clearly, the cryptic four-word phrase carried a weight of meaning accessible only to someone raised in the same culture. With the disappearance of the Yiddish-speaking East End, that culture has been impoverished.
Richard Grunberger

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