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A Walk on the East Side

In the old Jewish quarter, visiting the few sites that cling to a dynamic heritage

May 30, 1999|DAN FALK | Dan Falk is a freelance journalist based in Toronto

LONDON — Into the heart of East London there poured from Russia, from Poland, from Germany, from Holland, streams of Jewish exiles, refugees, settlers, few as well-to-do as the Jew of the proverb, but all rich in their cheerfulness, their industry, and their cleverness.

Israel Zangwill

"Children of the Ghetto," 1892


The story of England is a story of migration. Even in the earliest chapters of English history, wave after wave of settlers were leaving their mark on the land--Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans--each bringing their own language, culture and traditions. For most of these groups, integration was inevitable, as England, and especially its capital, London, became the melting pot of northwestern Europe.

I've always been fascinated by this idea of merging cultures. My country, Canada, is a nation of immigrants. My parents were Polish Jews who came to Canada after the war. And, though they both grew up in Warsaw, it was in London that they happened to meet. Perhaps that's part of the reason that I've always felt drawn to this city.

It's a cliche, perhaps, to say that visitors come to London because of its rich history, but I'd take it a step further and say this city has had many histories. Everyone, regardless of their background, can probably find a part of their own story somewhere in London.

For most of the city's history, London's Jews carved out their own separate world within this great human conglomeration. The city's East End eventually became the center of that world, serving as a focal point for Jewish immigration from across the Diaspora.

But if you set out to discover the Jewish East End, as I did last spring, be prepared for some detective work, for another immigrant tide has swept over it.

In the first decades of this century, 90% of England's Jewish population lived here. Those who became prosperous enough to leave the ghetto behind settled in a few suburbs to the north.

Those who remained, as usual, were the poorest. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to one guidebook, the local soup kitchen was serving 5,000 kosher meals a week.

During the Nazi bombing campaign of World War II, many Jews--and Londoners in general--moved to less vulnerable neighborhoods farther from the city center.

In the years following the war, the number of Jews in the East End continued to decline. Today an estimated 2,000 remain, scattered throughout what is now known as Banglatown, home to thousands of Bangladeshi immigrants. Still, a few landmarks of the Jewish legacy remain.

Before delving into the East End, I stopped for a moment just to the west of the Bank of England, in the heart of the old city. Here, a street sign is one of the last remnants of London's first Jewish quarter. It marks Old Jewry, a tiny street connecting Poultry and Gresham streets. Another reminder is a church nearby named for its neighborhood--St. Lawrence Jewry.

The city's first Jews arrived here in the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066, settling within the walled medieval city. Barred from most trades, many of them became moneylenders (Christians were forbidden to loan money at interest). Anti-Semitism was a perpetual threat, and intolerance became even more fierce during the Crusades. Jews were banned from attending the coronation of Richard I; when several Jews tried to make a presentation to the king, an angry mob turned on them and then burned the Jewish quarter. A century later, Edward I had hundreds of Jews hanged or imprisoned before finally expelling them from the country in 1290.

When the Jews were readmitted under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, many of them settled in the East End. This was always one of the city's poorest neighborhoods: Winds blew from west to east, and the stench of London's slaughterhouses made the East End the city's least desirable area. First to arrive were Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, followed by Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe. While some of the Sephardim were wealthy merchants, most of the Ashkenazim were desperately poor. Many struggled to make a living in the clothing trades, working in cramped shops and dim warehouses. Their numbers swelled in the 1800s, when pogroms--organized persecutions of Jews in Eastern Europe--drove thousands from Russia and Poland.

Having read up on Jewish London (I recommend "A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe" by Ben G. Frank, and "Ethnic London" by Ian McAuley), I set out to search for the handful of landmarks that remain and the sites of many that have vanished.

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