A London walk

The Soup Kitchen for the Jewish poor served 5,000 meals a day. Photo provided by Jewish London Walking Tours
The Soup Kitchen for the Jewish poor served 5,000 meals a day.
Photo provided by Jewish London Walking Tours

Could one of the most bloodthirsty of all serial murderers have been Jewish? Would it have been more accurate to have called London’s notorious 19th century killer Jacob the Ripper and not Jack?

With all his murders taking place in the heart of London’s Jewish Whitechapel district some police and journalists thought so at the time. And many of London’s nervous populace agreed, staging antisemitic riots at the height of the killings.

The prospect of Jacob the Ripper is one of the more bizarre examples of the fascinating history of the Jewish community in London’s East End, a story that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

After the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 at the height of popular dissent, the Russian authorities looked to deflect the disquiet and launched an antisemitic campaign that led to a wave of pogroms.


Between 1881 and 1914 more than three million Jews fled Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms and to seek a better quality of life. Canada and other parts of the British Commonwealth were popular destinations as well, of course, as the United States. Many first stopped in London for a few weeks or even several years before crossing the Atlantic. The East End became home to around 150,000 new immigrants who joined an existing 50,000 strong Jewish community there.

But this massive influx of impoverished Jews from far off lands did not go down well with London’s Jewish establishment fearing a rise in anti-Semitism. The new arrivals looked different, dressed differently, spoke a different language (Yiddish) and, as well as bringing with them their bedding and crockery, also brought their completely different way of life.

England’s Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler issued a plea in 1890 to East European rabbis telling them of the dire conditions for immigrants with overcrowding and poor health particularly in London’s East End quarter. In an open letter, the chief rabbi wrote: “There are many in Eastern Europe who believe all the cobblestones of London are precious stones and that it is a place of gold. Woe and alas, it is not so … warn them not to come to Britain.”

But his plea fell on deaf ears and the East End received most of the new arrivals, attracted by the area’s reputation for cheap living and because it was already home to a Jewish community. Many found work in the clothing industry sweatshops, notorious for their unhygienic conditions, breeding grounds for tuberculosis which claimed countless lives.

Rather than join the established synagogues thousands of immigrants set up small prayer rooms (shteibels) all over the East End, usually in someone’s front room each invariably attracting Jews from the same village or town back in Eastern Europe. And in a show of nostalgia they named them after their former homes, one the Sons of Lodz, another the Brethren of Konin and so on.

By the 1930s there were over 150 in just two square miles of the East End with some streets hosting several. Of course, several were set up following arguments among the members and one disenchanted group would start a new one a few houses down the street.

The oldest surviving Synagogue in England, Bevis Marks, today straddles the border between the East End and the city’s financial district. Founded in 1701 primarily by Dutch Jews whose ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition it is Sephardic with the original interior perfectly intact including the beautiful Renaissance-style Aron Kodesh.

Bevis Marks boasts several famous sons, most notably the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose father turned his back on Judaism and converted the family to Christianity when Benjamin was 12. This did not stop an Irish Member of Parliament later insulting the young politician’s Jewish roots. But Disraeli famously retorted: “Yes, I am a Jew. But while this gentleman’s ancestors were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Many sites in the East End continue to provide reminders of the rich heritage of the former Jewish community which at one time made up 75% of the local population. There’s the Soup Kitchen that served an incredible 5,000 meals a day during the pre-war.

Across Commercial Street in revitalised Spitalfields, £1 million homes vie with each other to maintain the best kept Jewish secrets from unknowing passers-by. One property was the first Yiddish theatre in Britain but closed another just a few months following a real-life tragedy when a hoaxer cried: “Fire!” In the stampede to get out, 17 people were crushed to death.

Of course, there’s famous Petticoat Lane market which still echoes to the hilarious spiel of Jewish traders although the sales patter today has a Bengali accent.

Just yards from the Lane is the site of the former Jews Free School, biggest elementary school in Europe (some say the world) with 4,250 pupils on its register in 1900. Most were immigrant children only speaking Yiddish and so, in a desperate bid to anglicise them, a large sign at the entrance proclaimed: “No Yiddish to be spoken in this school.” the children led the school with proper English accents, yet within a generation it also contributed to the demise of Yiddish theatre and Yiddish newspapers.

But the JFS did spawn some colorful characters such as Barney Barnato, son of a second hand clothes dealer. Barney literally went from rags to riches aer discovering diamonds in South Africa and selling his company to De Beers. Then there sweatshop tailor’s son Morris Cohen who mysteriously disappeared from the East End in the 1920s only to reappear in the 1930s as a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist army.

Following World War II, the majority of East End Jews gradually made good and moved out to the London suburbs and beyond. Another wave of migrants moved in, this time Bangladeshis, and settled in parts of the East End.

But Mr. Epstein, the sole remaining Jewish trader in Brick Lane, proudly sports his kippah outside his fabric shop as he chats with Bangladeshi neighbours. And perhaps nobody has told the owner of the Taj Mahal Curry House that the little item on his door frame covered in paint is a Mezuzah.

Tour guide and former journalist Stephen Burstin was born in London’s East End where he conducts Jewish-themed tours. 


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