Eretz Israel is our unforgettable historic homeland...The Jews who will it shall achieve their State...And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind. (Theodor Herzl, DerJudenstaat, 1896)

We offer peace and amity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all. The State of Israel is ready to contribute its full share to the peaceful progress and development of the Middle East.
(From Proclamation of the State of Israel, 5 Iyar 5708; 14 May 1948)

With a liberal democratic political system operating under the rule of law, a flourishing market economy producing technological innovation to the benefit of the wider world, and a population as educated and cultured as anywhere in Europe or North America, Israel is a normal Western country with a right to be treated as such in the community of nations.... For the global jihad, Israel may be the first objective. But it will not be the last. (Friends of Israel Initiative)

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Snatched Memories: A Daughter of Zion on Yiddishkayt in the old East End

Beth-Zion Abrahams (1902-1990), who grew up in a big East European immigrant family in London’s East End, was a sister of Israel Meir Lask, who settled in Eretz Israel in 1930 and became an acclaimed translator of Hebrew poetry. She was married to award-winning poet Abraham Abrahams (1897-1955), a former editor of the Jerusalem daily Ha-Yarden, who at one time headed the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), and was Chairman of the Zionist Revisionist Organisation of Great Britain at the time of his death. Beth-Zion wrote on aspects of Anglo-Jewish history and translated into English the Yiddish memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Her father, Joseph Chaim Cohen-Lask , was a Polish-born melamud who moved in 1890 to London. His mill and shop in Bell Lane, Aldgate, provided the East End with buckwheat. He was a Yiddishist and a stalwart of the Chovevei Zion (‘Lovers of Zion’) movement; following his death in 1937 his family donated his fine collection of Yiddish and Hebrew volumes to the Tel Aviv Municipal Library, but, heart-breakingly, later discovered that the collection had largely gone missing. Beth-Zion’s reminiscences of the Jewish East End, given in the course of an interview, appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle (11 January 1980). Her parents’ home, she recalled, was a hub of lively debate on various topics of Jewish concern, above all Zionism. Here’s what she had to say, without further comment from me, apart from the clarifications in square brackets:

“The names of the regular attenders at these gatherings was numerous. They included Joseph Brenner [Yosef Chaim Brenner, 1881-1921], later to be killed in the Arab riots in Palestine; journalists Suwalsky [Isaak ben Samson Suwalski, 1863-1913], Brill and Frumkin [probably Elias Ephraim Frumkin, c1880-1958]; Professor M. H.Segal [Moshe Zvi Segal, 1875-1968, who moved to Israel in 1926 and taught at the Hebrew University], and Gelberg, the Hebrew poet. All of them benefited from the ever-ready hospitality of my mother, who provided endless glasses of pale amber Russian tea with thin slices of lemon floating on top.

People tend to forget this cultural side of the old East End and remember only the ‘sweat shops’. The whole atmosphere was rich, colourful, and intensely Jewish, even though it was a time of great poverty, and the work of the Board of Guardians had to compete with that of the converting missionaries.

There were three basic divisions within the community. There were the Dutch Jews, with their Netherlands Club in the Tentergrounds. They were known as ‘chuts’ because of the way they pronounced ‘chut morning’ and similar phrases so gutturally. Then there were us Jews of East European stock who always spoke Yiddish. And there were the English Jews.many of whom looked down on the Yiddish-speaking foreigners in their midst.

Nevertheless, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the East End in those days. I was reminded of this many years later when speaking to Rev Balleine, a former curate of Whitechapel Church, who recalled to me with amusement a sign reading ‘English spoken here’ placed over one of the counters in the old Osborn Street post office. There was even an old Yiddish street singer called Solomon Levy.

Yiddish concerts in the local community halls were always crowded. One song which never failed to make all the women cry was A brevel di mame (a little letter to mother). In those days, you see, leaving der heim could often mean a lifetime’s separation from one’s family....

Petticoat Lane had an atmosphere of its own – typified by the ice-cream seller with his cry of ‘okey pokey, penny a lump!’ – and especially so as Shabbos and Yomtov approached. People would come in from all parts of town to do their shopping and then all the stalls and shops would close and peace would descend. Queues would form for the municipal baths in Wentworth Street, and I can still remember the formidable woman attendant with her turnkey would come and turn you out if you stayed too long.

After Yom Kippur, it was customary for many years for crowds of mostly young Jews to march from London Hos[p]ital, Whitechapel, through Aldgate as far as the Bank. Always on the right hand side of the road and chanting, ‘To the bank, to the bank, to the bank, bank, bank!’

At home we girls had a busy time of it before Shabbos, polishing the candlesticks and the cutlery, cleaning rooms, and so on. Cooking, a ritual common to every household, was something the children would love to watch. Everything was homemade. For lockshen dough the women used to roll out egg and flour in sheets on the kitchen table. Then it would be smoothed out on the bedspread ready to be folded and cut into thin strips. This was invariably accompanied by the regular ‘tap, tap, tap’ of the sharp knife on the table top.

Kneidlach, kreplach, chopped liver – all were prepared in similar routine fashion. Chickens were usually called ‘fowls’ then, and you could buy a whole fowl or a portion from one of the many stallholders lined up on either side of Wentworth Street and Cobb Street. You could buy a live fowl from a crate. And if you were intending to eat it rather than keep it for the eggs, you’d take it to the nearby schecht house for it to be ritually slaughtered and handed over to be plucked by one of the women regularly employed for this purpose.

Pesach brings back particularly happy childhood memories. Father, being a wholesaler, used to get tons of nuts, and as children we played a game using hazel and tiger nuts which made us much in demand in the street.

Mothers stood in the doorways beaming proudly at all the bonny children. Although we were living in what was technically a slum, we were extremely well cared for.

One of our favourite locations was ‘Itchy Park’, a churchyard frequented by tramps whose constant need to scratch themselves gave rise to our name for the place. But it was always safe. Despite living in one of the roughest parts of London, the children could run free without any fear of being molested.

....Everyone would be in and out of each other’s houses. There were no arranged visits. And people used to look after each other. I remember when one woman’s husband died, the neighbours set her up with a stall in the market from which she was able to bring up her family.

I think the regular, hard way of life we had gave us more backbone. And we were all strongly aware of our Jewishness. I very much regret seeing today the well-educated Jew who knows so much about many things but little or nothing about his Jewishness. He is even ashamed of it.

On the other hand, I don’t mind the diversity of affiliation across the community. This is a positive thing on the whole. We’re not all cut to pattern. And, after all, the only place you can be sure of unanimity is the graveyard!”


  1. Interesting read. My mother is from the East End and I was born a stone's throw from it.

    Fascinating stories. My mother told me all about the Board of Guardians and the missionaries.

    A world all but gone except in the memories and writing of those that lived through it.

    From such poverty was born the thriving Jewish community of today. I wonder how many know about or care about the experiences of their grand parents and great grand parents.

  2. This has brought tears to my eyes. It's like re-living my childhood.

    It's funny, because I don't recall any Jews in the East End, not speaking Yiddish. We all grew up speaking it, as our grandparents were from the old Soviet bloc countries and spoke no English.

    One of the main things not mentioned is the market in Hessel St, which was known as the ‘Jewish Market.’ There was no way one could shop there, if they didn't speak Yiddish. I used to go the long way around to school, so that I could watch the shochet killing chickens!!

    It was a wonderful warm vibrant place to live and it was multicultural, before it was PC to be multicultural. Many Indians, West Indians and Irish people.

  3. Hi, Ray and Shirl in Oz. I'm glad you both like it. Beth-Zion Abrahams was a good historian, and since I'm still flu-ey and largely non compos mentis I decided I'd make her the "guest blogger". There were three other interviews of elderly people along with hers - maybe I'll make extracts later for future posting.

  4. Ray, where were you born?

    There's mention of the London Hospital in the article. I grew up in the street behind it !!

    Thanks to Hitler, I wasn't born in the East End. All babies were born outside of London during the war, especially the East End, because the Luftwaffe were targeting the docks

    Daphne you can use my name !!!

  5. I was born in the City Road extension of the Royal Free Hospital and spent the first 5 years of my life in Shoreditch/Hoxton.

    My mother lived at various venues around Commercial Rd from the 20's to 40's

    The London Hospital was well know to her.

    So a good stone's throw would be more accurate; maybe I'm not quite a true Eastender but Shoreditch is pretty close and I think I qualify as a Cockney. I'm a spiritual Eastender if nothing else.

  6. Shirl - my Booba used to go go to Hessel Street everyday taking my Mum with her. Oh, the stories I could tell. At one time I intended to do so - maybe I will, one day. Another world, another time. Laughter and tears. The Blitz, the Depression....

    My experience is second-hand, of course, yours first hand. I envy your memories.

  7. If you wish to be put in touch with each other, Ray and Shirlee, I have your respective emails.
    (I love having your reminiscences on here but fully understand, of course, if there are things you'd rather discuss in private.)
    I'll keep on the lookout for other extracts of interest. Much has been posted to the web, of course, but their are still hidden gems waiting to be discovered.
    One field of onterest re the East End is the world of Yiddish theatre - David Mazower has written a book on that and there's material online.

  8. Daphne and Ray

    There are many videos of the old East End on Youtube.
    Daphne do you have the link for the above?

    Just found this whilst looking for something I have tossed.

    It has a link to Fieldgate St shul. My booba lived directly opposite and took us there on High Holydays.

    Ray, I have been told that Hessel St is now Pakistani...I shudder !!

    My father was a Councillor in Stepney for 25 years. The last time I was down the East End, his name was still painted on walls!!

    Ray I will write to you. Daphne sent me your address, but I have heaps of mail to catch up on, so it will be a week or so

  9. Shirlee, I will try and email you the link.

  10. Daphne,

    Do you know what happened to papers in Beth-Zion Abraham's personal collection? I've just met her through an article she wrote in 1980 based on a couple of entries in a 19th century British consul's notebook that she apparently held. I have particular interest in that material. If it's somehow accessible for study now, I would be grateful for that information.

    Thank you.

    A.W. Roades, USA

  11. Not offhand, I'm afraid. However, she was a leading member of the Jewish Historical Society of England, and if you contact them they might well be able to put you on the right path.
    If you contact me on email I'll give you a contact person - and I may be able to think of another lead
    daphne dot anson at gmail dot com

  12. HI Daphne,
    Beth Zion Abrahams was my great aunt, and Im curious as to how you started a blog in her name. to us she was known as Aunt Rachel (her given name) and her Father Joseph is my great uncle, are you related to us in some way?

    thanks Elizabeth

    1. No, Elizabeth. I'm not a relative. I encountered your aunt's name through my interest in the history of the Anglo-Jewish community and my membership of the Jewish Historical Society of England - I admired the fact that she was a pioneering writer on the topic, and a very talented one. She's one of the many people who have potted biographies in "The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History" which was published a couple of years ago.

    2. @Elizabeth (lizhb)
      I'm a researcher for The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, under the auspices of Yale University Press and am seeking the descendants of Beth Zion Abrahams to request copyright permission to include an excerpt of her translation of "Gluckel of Hamelin" for an upcoming anthology.
      Elizabeth, I'd be very grateful if you would contact me for further details ( I'm actually located in Israel)
      Thanks so much and I look forward to hearing from you!
      Alice Tesler

  13. Dear Daphne,

    Thanks for all you wrote and brought here.
    Aunt Roochel (RBZ Abrahams) was my father's sister. Much of the family correspondence (yet for serious researches) is in:
    Much of that correspondence is between my father I.M. Lask and RBZ.

    As to copyright, perhaps Ruth Rasnic, in Israel can be connected. However several relatives have been and are being connected by the Posen publishing house already.
    All the best,
    Bella Doron-Lask

    1. Thank you very much for that information, Bella. This post, although an old one, still gets its fair share of views, and that information is very welcome.

  14. Dear daphne,
    after some re-search I found out that the Diary (note book?) of Consul James Finn, which was held by RBZ Abrahams-Lask, is probably now in Yad Ben Zvi, Israel.
    All the best,
    Bella Doron-Lask

  15. Hello all, are there any known photos of RBZ Abrahams as a young girl, with family, in the East End of London?


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