The Jews of London: From Diaspora to Whitechapel
Rosemary O'Day


Editors Introduction
From the late nineteenth century until the late 1970s the East End of London was to all intents and purposes a Jewish enclave. The Jewish community came suddenly and in great waves from 1881 onwards, transforming the areas they settled in, building synagogues, setting up tailoring and cabinet making workshops, opening Yiddish theatre and Jewish schools. In his immense survey, The Life and Labour of the People of London published in 1901, Charles Booth captured a pivotal moment in the history of the Jewish community in London. In this article Rosemary O'Day, professor of modern history at the Open University who has worked extensively with the Charles Booth archive at the British Library of Political and Economic Sciences, discusses the history of the Jewish community in London, identifying the tensions and the testimonies that characterised it.

In 1850 British Jews numbered some 35,000; by 1881 their numbers had swollen to 60,000, due both to natural increase and to continuous migration from Germany, Holland and particularly, Poland. Throughout the Diaspora, the Jews who were already settled in England had a reputation for hospitality second to none. Synagogues in Holland, for example, would pay the steamer masters handsomely to export undesirables from their own congregations to those in London, knowing full well that the London Jews would not turn their backs on poor unfortunates.

Exodus
Jews had long felt insecure within the Russian Empire and, after the assassination of the more tolerant Alexander II, they were driven from the countryside and forced to live in the towns along the Pale of Settlement, excluded from education and from public service. As a result, most Jews belonged to the lowest stratum of the unemployed proletariat or worked as artisans and small masters. Many fled the Russian Empire, mainly without passports, largely to escape poverty, military service and, to a lesser extent, personal violence. Between 1880 and 1914 no fewer than 2 million Jews made their way to the USA, Canada, the Argentine, France and South Africa. One-hundred-thousand travelled by weekly steamer from Rotterdam, Libau, Hamburg and Bremen to the English ports of Hull, Grimsby and London. This immigration came in waves: the first wave was a response to the crisis of 1881-2 in Russia; the second resulted from the expulsion of Poles from Prussia in 1886; the third was triggered by expulsions from Moscow and Kiev in 1890-1. Finally, the twentieth century brought waves of immigrants escaping from pogroms, war and revolution. Nine-tenths of this immigrant population settled in London.
The jewish population of Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe fled in droves during the pogroms of the latter nineteenth century.

It was the men who arrived first. Only when they had found employment and lodging did the women and children follow. Some Russian Jews, such as the family of the impresarios Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont, prepared well in advance for their settlement in London:

"My father was away for three months before he finally sent for us. I later found out that he had insisted that my mother learnt to speak Yiddish when he was away, because without any English we'd be lost in the East End of London. At home, you see, we spoke only Russian."

Family migration was at the heart of the Jewish influx. However, emigration allowed some men to escape domestic difficulties, and the women they left behind were anxious that temporary separation did not turn into permanent desertion. One Moshe Berman left his wife in Saulen seeking a better life in London. His wife pleaded with him to return, 'God knows when we will see each other! You are bad off there and I am bad off here, and cannot earn anything. Please let me know if there are any means for you to come back to Saulen...' Nevertheless, the great waves of migration continued through the Victorian era.

The immigrant Jews
London's immigrant Jews were far from an undifferentiated mass. Religious and voluntary associations, such as chevras and friendly societies, had moved with the immigrants from their native lands and helped maintain a certain social and familial separation. Beatrice Potter, then Charles Booth's associate, described the function of the chevra:

The East End Jews of the working class rarely attend the larger synagogues.... For the most part the religious-minded form themselves into associations (Chevras), which combine the functions of a benefit club for death, sickness, and the solemn rites of mourning with that of public worship and the study of the Talmud. Thirty or forty of these chevras are scattered throughout the Jewish quarters.... Usually each Chevras is named after the town or district in Russia or Poland from which the majority of its members have emigrated: it is, in fact, from old associations--from ties of relationship or friendship, or, at least, from the memory of a common home--that the new association springs. Linguistic differences helped to cement these tendencies--while Yiddish was spoken among Jews (and certainly was more prevalent than English) it was not universal. The report of the Lancet medical journal special sanitary commission of 1888 indicated that in practice they were faced by a community which was Jewish 'in blood and creed', but 'to a great extent Polish in their instincts, customs and predilections'. This was a diverse mass of peoples from all over Europe, united by religion and their desire for a better life.
Newly arrived members of the Jewish community stayed in lodges dedciated to Jewish immigrants.

Newly arrived Jews knew neither the place nor the language but were desperate for work. They could not work for gentiles because they could not communicate and, more pertinently, because they would not work on the Sabbath (sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday). They had no alternative but to turn to Jewish 'sweaters', small masters (often tailors) who shared the immigrants' language, culture and religion, but who could and did impose any conditions they wished on their workers. Charles Russell and Harry S.Lewis, authors of The Jew in London (1900), also highlighted the sometimes exploitative nature of the 'foreign Jew as landlord'. 'The Chief Rabbi' they claimed,'in a recent sermon, tells the story of an East-End Jew who exclaimed to him, "Thank God I live under a Christian landlord"'.

Organising the immigrants - addressing their poverty
There was already a long-established community of Jews in Britain, and especially in London. The prosperous middle-class and elite Jews clustered heavily in the West End of the metropolis, leaving the East End to the poor. Russell and Lewis believed that the line between the English and the foreign Jew was even more marked than that between the English Jew and the gentile. 'When they come into too much contact there is even mutual hostility and contempt. In Whitechapel the bitterest enemies of the foreign immigrant that I have come across have been English Jews, while the foreigners are commonly shocked and scandalised at the laxity in faith, and the shamelessly "non-observant" lives of their English co-religionists'.

The social concerns of the Jewish immigrant community had been regulated from 1858 onwards by the Jewish Board of Guardians. It was dominated by an Anglo-Jewish financial elite who organised and controlled charitable assistance as part of a plan to provide poor immigrant Jews with marketable skills and allow them to become part of the prosperous Jewish middle class. It acted as a much-needed bridge between the rich and the poor, who were separated physically in the capital city as elsewhere. The Poor Jews' Temporary Centre was also set up by F.D.Mocatta and others to give the immigrants a bed for the night after they landed, and to point them towards employment.

The acculturated leaders of Anglo-Jewry were ultimately horrified by the implications of mass immigration for their position in Britain. They tried to dissuade Eastern European Jews from coming to these islands. They tried to acculturate those who did come. They tried to encourage those who congregated in Whitechapel and Spitalfields to disperse rapidly to London's suburbia, echoing the concerns of the gentile elite.
The Jewish community retained many aspects of their culture, even in the East End of London.

Tensions and experience
However, we should beware of identifying problems within Jewish East London wholly in terms of poverty. A couple of examples can illuminate other tensions relating to the pressures of living in a declaredly Christian society and the fear many Jews felt concerning loss of identity. At times this was heightened by the conflict between proposed national legislation and the desire of Jews to be regarded as good and law-abiding citizens.

Proposed reform of the Sunday trading laws in 1906 created a crisis. Lively Sunday markets (such as that of Petticoat Lane) provided a trading outlet for Jews; if these markets were forbidden, many Jews would have to choose between near-starvation or defiance of either the laws of the land or those of their religion. The president of the Board of Deputies, David Lindo Alexander, gave a spirited justification of Jewish grounds for special treatment to the Joint Select Committee on Sunday Trading. But education in state schools also presented opportunities and threats to Jewish identity. These threats were addressed by measures such as the provision of Hebrew classes and special Jewish youth clubs. Nonetheless the predominant effect was that 'this was the bell of the great Ghetto school, summoning its pupils from the reeking courts and alleys, from the garrets and the cellars, calling them to come and be anglicized'. Tailoring sweatshops flourished in the East End after the arrival of the Jewish immigrants.

The Jewish community itself was also awash with contradictory elements: immigrant Orthodox Jews denigrating 'ignorant English Judiasim' which 'pays its stupid reverends thousands a year for wearing white ties'; Jewish ministers 'rigged out like the Christian clergyman' visiting Pettoicoat Lane and 'pelted with gratuitous vegetables and eleemosynary eggs'. There was also tension between orthodox and other Jews, between those who spoke Yiddish and those who did not, between Dutch and Polish Jews, between 'sweater' employers and employees. 'I would not trust a Dutchman with my medicine bottle, much less with my Alte or my Becky' declared Mrs Belcovitch in Israel Zangwill's 1892 novel Children of the Ghetto. Clearly a view of the Jewish as an undifferentiated community is grossly mistaken.

"Mrs Isaacs and Mrs Jacobs rarely quarrelled with each other, uniting rather in opposition to the rest of the Square. They were English, quite English... and they gave themselves airs in consequence, and called their kinder 'children', which annoyed those neighbours who found a larger admixture of Yiddish necessary for conversation. These very kinder, again, attained considerable importance among their schoolfellows by refusing to pronounce the guttural 'ch' of the hebrew otherwise than as an English 'k'."

'The spectre of a separatist immigrant community, organised around an autonomous federation of small synagogues also posed a threat to the unity of Anglo-Jewry and the authority of its leaders', itself newly established and sensitive to challenge. Samuel Montague's Federation of Synagogues attempted to prevent overt schism and gradually to anglicise the immigrant synagogues. In 1889 it proposed the East End Scheme--essentially the creation of an anglicised version of the immigrant Jewish chevra under the authority of the Chief Rabbi--and debated the idea until 1894. During the interval the United Synagogue collected detailed information about the institutions of the immigrant quarter.

Yet there were times when living in a non-Jewish society had positive perceived benefits. The outstanding example must be the Jewish employment of Shiksahs (gentile females) as domestic servants especially for Sabbath duties. But there were also dangers. Fear of over-assimilation and loss of Jewishness was not new in the 1880s. A number of interviews with street vendors reveal just how little some Jews knew about their religion and how little they abided by its rules. The flood of impoverished immigrant Jews in the 1880s and 1890s into one small area accentuated the problem.

The gentile perspective
During the last decades of the nineteenth century the influx of foreign Jews was seen as a problem--an indeterminate part of a social crisis affecting the metropolis. The medical profession was tremendously exercised by the threats to public health posed by congestion in such a small area of the East End. The Lancet undertook its own special investigation and in 1884 (just three years after the real immigration started) reported that 30,000 Jews now 'huddled together in districts that were already overcrowded'. It went on to explore the consequences for the health of the population. These were not all a result of overcrowding and the impact on hygiene, sanitation and so on, but also a result of religious rules (especially Sabbath observance) which increased the problems of acquiring paid work in a largely Christian environment, and of work practices (sweatshops) which removed workers from the protection of industrial legislation. The Royal Commission into the Housing of the Working Classes considered the impact of foreign (largely Jewish) immigration.

There was also an increasing awareness of the problems caused by linguistic difference and consequent poor communication, of cultural as well as religious norms and values. The trial papers of Israel Lipski indicate how justice was ill-served by the failure to provide a proper interpreter for this poor immigrant Jew accused of murder. Only gradually were steps taken to improve communication--for example, by providing Yiddish lessons for London policemen and by giving help with completing the decennial census. An artist's impression of the Jewish Sunday clothes exchange at Houndsditch.

Others were exercised by the adverse affect of the Jewish 'sweaters' upon working conditions, and by the capacity of Jewish families to support themselves. Problematic also was the extent to which Jews, isolated in a self-selected ghetto, would become good citizens, integrated into English life. How, too, could the police control such an inward-looking and Yiddish-speaking community? How would they relate to a Christian community? Within a very short time, social investigators from all quarters were organising inquiries into different aspects of the 'problem', and social and religious reformers were suggesting remedies. Some of these 'remedies' served perhaps to accentuate the problem.

By the time Charles Booth began work on his inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People of London it would, as David Englander pointed out, 'have been unthinkable' for him 'to omit the Jewish community' from it. Indeed Booth commissioned the young Beatrice Potter to produce a study of the community itself, and observations of the Jewish population did form a substantial part of the final published work.

Understanding Jewish London
In recent times the history of the Jews in London has frequently been seen through the eyes of prejudiced and puzzled, if often admiring, gentiles. Often the surviving sources do not permit us to dispense entirely with this perspective. Moreover, this gentile view does enable us to comprehend the informal ghettoization of London's jewry. Yet, now, historians are turning ever more to an internal history of the London Jewish community--concentrating on its workaday world, its culture and its politics--to a study of its relations with the gentile world and to a comparative approach.

Copyright Rosemary O'Day and The London School of Economics and Political Science.