London's Jewish East End

A street called Old Jewry in London’s famous Square Mile is all that remains of the Jews who lived there from 1066 until their expulsion in 1290. New immigrants – Dutch Sephardim – were admitted in 1656. They settled in the East End. Dutch Sephardim worshipped at Creechurch Lane in the city of London, about a mile from the East End. A tablet marks the site. In 1701 they built the beautiful Bevis Marks Synagogue, off Bury Street. It is still in use today.

Dutch and German Ashkenazi Jews also built synagogues in the city: the Great in 1690 (destroyed in the 1940 Blitz), the Hambro (1706-1892) and the New (1761-1837). The oldest Ashkenazi cemetery was opened in 1697 at Alderney Road, and was in use until 1953.

Wealthier Jews began deserting the East End for London’s more salubrious suburbs. Taking their place were Yiddish-speaking, unassimilated Ostjuden from Russia, Poland and Romania, who totalled 150,000 during the period 1881-1914. Rejecting the Englishness of existing synagogues, these Eastern European Jews set up their own Federation of 16 small synagogues in 1887, all in the East End. The Machzikei Hadas community took over an 18th century Protestant church on Brick Lane, which had been built by French Huguenots. Today the building houses a mosque for local Bangladeshis. The Sha’arei Ya’akov Synagogue, built in 1896 in Fieldgate Street, now forms part of the gateway to the huge Whitechapel mosque.

Amateur Yiddish theatres blossomed in Spitalfieds and Whitechapel, drawing on the tradition of the Purim spiel (play). Professional actors set up a club on Princes Street, and in 1906 the Pavillion launched its first full Yiddish season. Four actor-directors dominated theatrical life: Sigmund Feinman, Maurice Moscovitch, Joseph Kessler and Fanny Waxman. Other Yiddish theatres included the highbrow Temple of Art Theatre, founded in 1912; Adler Hall; and the Grand Palais, which closed down in 1970. The Pavillion itself had to close in 1935.

The ‘Jewish Dickens’, Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), wrote the quintessential portrait of Jewish Whitechapel in Children of the Ghetto: a Study of a Peculiar People (1892), dispelling the notion that it was just a zone of sweatshops. On October 4, 1936, Jews fought a pitched battle against thugs from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. This became known as the Battle of Cable Street, Stepney. Over half of London’s Jews lived in the Borough of Stepney at the time.

The Jews’ Free School was set up in the mid-19th century for penniless Jewish immigrants. By 1900 it had 4,000 pupils, making it reputedly Europe’s largest school. It has since relocated from the East End to north London.

Jewish attractions in today’s East End include a Jewish poor home; Petticoat Lane market; Henriques and Adler Streets; a statue built by Jews to honour King Edward II outside Whitechapel underground station; and the 24-hour Beigel Bake in Brick Lane, founded by Yemenite Israelis. Although there may be more chappattis (Indian bread) than bagels in today’s East End, memories of its Jewish past linger.