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|Culture and Festivals|
Culture and Festivals
For new immigrants, the structure of Jewish religious life provided security and stability in what must have seemed a strange, often unpleasant, new world. The weekly Sabbath rituals, the annual festivals, and the events in the cycle of Jewish life, celebrated in the proper manner, were all vitally important touchstones.
Immigrants arriving at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries found that the Jews already settled in Britain had anglicised their religious services. These were not to many of the newcomers' tastes, and all over the areas of new settlement they set up small synagogues of their own, or chevrot, using services familiar from the heim.
As the immigrants settled into British life, their religious ritual gradually became less distinctive. There were also attempts to bring the immigrants into the Anglo-Jewish fold, for instance through Sir Samuel Montagu's union of the larger chevrot into a Federation of Synagogues in 1887, and establishment of links with the United Synagogue, which was established in 1870.
Religious orthodoxy varied widely among the immigrants. But nearly all marked Friday night - the eve of the Sabbath when all work ceased, and the family was at home - as special, and observed the major holidays throughout the year. Even men who had to work on a Saturday because of economic necessity would try to be home for the Friday evening meal, which was the heart of the week for the Jewish family.
Harry Blacker (1910-99), a cartoonist and illustrator born to Russian immigrant parents in the East End, recalls the way of life:
From childhood to marriage, the native young were conditioned to religious observance via daily attendance at cheder and the orthodox way of life in the home. The Sabbath was indeed a day of rest, heralded each Friday at dusk by the ritual blessing over candles by mother and father, yarmulke on head and goblet in hand, leading us through the Kiddush with its sanctification of wine and bread. The following morning we attended the local synagogue.
The two most important days in the Jewish calendar are Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and ten days later Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a day of prayer and fasting. Even the least religious observers among the immigrant communities would go to shul on these two days in the Jewish year.
The anarchists in the early 20th century would show their disrespect for the rituals of religion by holding Yom Kippur balls, to the dismay of most of the Jewish population.
In the words of Harry Blacker:
It was during the festival of Rosh Hashanah that the everyday hustle and bustle of the native quarter slowed down to a quiet and reflective pace. Shops were shuttered. Yiddish printed notices were pinned up to inform customers that it would be business as usual following the holydays. In every home, Festival prayer books were lifted down from cupboard shelves where they were placed for safekeeping a year ago.
Passover, when Jewish families celebrate the escape of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, is a time for spring-cleaning the house from top to bottom, to remove any trace of forbidden foods. The seder meals during Passover were always memorable family occasions marked by tradition and special food.
Purim and Chanucah - the festival of lights - are both essentially children's festivals, marked with parties and celebrations. Also popular with children is Simchat Torah, which celebrates the giving of the Law. Cyril Spector, who was born in 1921 and grew up in Bethnal Green and Hackney, described the festival in these terms in his book Volla Volla Jew Boy (Centreprise Trust, Hackney, 1988):
This was a jolly festival, when all the children were given sweets after the service. The grander the synagogue, the better the sweets!
For those immigrants who were separated from the mainstream Jewish community, religious observance could be a problem.
The phases of Jewish life are marked by a number of important events. Boys are circumcised a few days after birth. An approved mohel is needed to carry out the operation in accordance with Jewish law, and the occasion is traditionally marked with a small celebration.
An event of major importance for every Jewish boy is his barmitzvah. This takes place when he turns 13, and he has to recite a part of the service in synagogue in Hebrew. Until relatively recently, the event was marked only for boys, although it has now become quite common for girls to have a similar celebration, called a batmitzvah.
Months of practice go into preparation for the celebration, which marks the transition to adulthood. Even in the days when money was tight in the new immigrant community, enough would still be scraped together for a new suit for the barmitzvah boy. The event would be marked with great pride, with a celebration for family and friends (the size of which depended on the prosperity of the parents) and, if the barmitzvah boy was lucky, a few gifts.
Many of the older boys who came to England as refugees in the 1930s brought with them gifts they had received for their barmitzvah among their most prized possessions.
Sam Clarke was born in 1907, the son of immigrants from Russia. He remembers his barmitzvah in Bethnal Green:
On the day of my Bar Mitzvah, Father and I made our way to the local synagogue, which was the upper floors of two private houses in Teesdale Street. After the service the elderly, small congregation wished me Mazeltov. Some whiskey and cake that was provided by my father was handed round. The only gift, a praying shawl, was given by my parents.
Weddings too, of course, were times of great rejoicing and celebration in Jewish communities. Traditionally, most parents wanted nothing more for their children than to marry 'a nice Jewish boy (or girl)'. Some weddings were arranged by professional matchmakers, shadchen, usually themselves from Russia or Poland. Increasingly, though, young people wanted to make their own choices, and despite the strict moral values of their community, met their partners at clubs, at work, at dances, or through friends. In the East End, a popular meeting place was the Whitechapel Road, where young men and women would stroll up and down in a procession sometimes known as the Shidduch - or marriage - Parade, or even the Monkeys Parade.
The day of the traditional wedding is marked by lengthy celebrations. It begins with the synagogue ceremony itself: the wedding couple under the chuppa (wedding canopy), the breaking of a wine glass underfoot, the singing of the blessings by the cantor, and all usually followed by loud shouts of Mazeltov, the weeping of the bride's mother and much enthusiastic kissing of all friends and relatives!
The synagogue service in the early part of the 20th century would typically be followed by a reception at a ballroom or hotel, such as Stern's in Aldgate, with a great deal of food, speeches and dancing. Kosher caterers would be employed to provide several lengthy and elaborate meals.
The final necessity was a photograph by one of the approved photographers, such as Suss of Whitechapel, or in the 1930s Boris Bennett. If the couple were lucky, their photo would be displayed in the photographer's window for a few weeks.
A wedding was a huge expense for the family, and often the poorest immigrants could not afford the celebration they wanted. In the Rothschild Buildings, if a family could not afford to hire a hall for the wedding, sometimes neighbours would offer their rooms instead. Jerry White quotes from a former resident of Rothschild Buildings, in his book of the same name:
And anybody and everybody was welcome, the door open, to come in and drink and have a snack. And they were dancing out in the veranda and in the playground.
Some guests, though, would have to turn down invitations to the wedding because they could not afford a present.
Religious ritual accompanies death in almost any community. It was always essential for Jewish migrants, wherever they settled, to have not only synagogues but also their own burial grounds. When the Jews returned to England again under Cromwell in 1656, among the first dispensations they sought - and acquired - were to be able to 'meet privately in their houses for prayer' and to lease a cemetery.
Initially, they had quite small burial grounds in areas that were then on the fringe of the inner cities - for example, Brady Street in London's Whitechapel. As the cities grew, and the Jewish population expanded, more and larger grounds had to be acquired in what, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were still outer areas, like Edmonton, Hendon and Willesden.
After death, there follows a period of ritual mourning, several days when a family sit shiva at home. The anniversary of the death of a close relative is traditionally marked each year by the lighting of a yahrzeit candle at home.
In poor immigrant communities, the death of the family breadwinner would be a serious blow for the rest of the family, and it was then that the welfare payments provided by friendly societies were most needed.
In everyday life, too, Jewish customs, culture and religious requirements had a powerful influence on keeping the immigrant community together.
The most important practices related to food. Jews are forbidden to eat certain foods at all, and other foods unless they are prepared according to Jewish law. Food is central to Jewish celebrations, with different items carrying a particular association with specific times in the religious cycle, for instance a challa loaf every Sabbath, or honey cake at New Year. The immigrants also brought with them a taste for dishes from Eastern Europe that must have seemed very foreign to the native English.
As a result, Jewish neighbourhoods became known for their distinctive foods, with smells and tastes very different from their British equivalents. Here were grocery shops selling barrels of salted herrings, pickled cucumbers, cream cheese and smoked salmon, kosher butchers selling only meat and poultry prepared according to dietary laws, bagel sellers, salt beef sandwich shops, and a variety of kosher caf`and restaurants.
In the early years of settlement, Yiddish was the lingua franca, and despite efforts by the Anglo-Jewish establishment to discourage its use, Yiddish material of all kinds was published.
The most popular entertainment among the late 19th and early 20th century immigrant community was Yiddish theatre. The repertoire ranged from Shakespeare, Ibsen and Strindberg - translated into Yiddish - to heart-rending melodramas.
The Yiddish performances allowed the immigrant an escape from the hardships of everyday life, and a nostalgic revisiting of the places they had left behind. Night after night, Yiddish venues such as the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel played to packed houses of noisy, appreciative audiences.
The new immigrants were encouraged to become as integrated as possible into British life, and one means was through sport. Young immigrant lads took up football and cricket with enthusiasm, and many energetic street games were played, often to the disapproval of adults.
Football remained a passion with many Jewish men, and some teams, for instance Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, are still known to have a large Jewish following. As the migrant communities moved into the suburbs in the first half of the 20th century, membership of golf and tennis clubs became popular with young people, for both sporting and social reasons.
Indoor sports, such as boxing and later table tennis, were popular in the boys' clubs.
Boxing, somewhat surprisingly, has a long tradition of Jewish participation in England. In the eighteenth century it was one of the means by which the poor immigrant could excel, and the Sephardi Jew, Daniel Mendoza, was a champion boxer in England for several years. The tradition continued into the 1920s and 1930s with successful fighters such as Ted 'Kid' Lewis and Jack 'Kid' Berg. Lewis, the British middleweight and welterweight champion, and European middleweight, lost the world light-heavyweight championship of 1922 to Georges Carpentier. In the first round, the referee had made a comment to Lewis, who dropped his guard to catch what was said and to complain that Carpentier had hit him below the belt. Lewis was then caught by a vicious right to his jaw from his opponent, sending him to the canvas, and the referee counted him out.
The experiences of the immigrants were recounted through literature and art, although not many writers emerged out of the 'ghetto'. Early artists and writers to emerge from immigrant beginnings include men such as Israel Zangwill, Mark Gertler and the poet Isaac Rosenberg. Second and third generation writers who have drawn on their immigrant roots and experiences in the Jewish community include Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Bernard Kops, and more recently Linda Grant and Howard Jacobsen. Some of the foremost artists and sculptors in Britain in the 20th century - like David Bomberg, Sir Anthony Caro, Sir Jacob Epstein, and Lucian Freud - came from Jewish immigrant stock.
A more common career path for creative young Jewish men and women was in popular music and entertainment. The singing tradition in synagogues provided early training in music, and the theatrical tradition was also strong. In the 1920s and 30s many children of immigrants went into the entertainment business, singing, acting and dancing. Bandleaders such as Geraldo and Joe Loss became household names.
Culturally, the refugees who arrived in the 1930s were very different from those who had arrived a generation earlier. They were often from highly educated backgrounds in Germany and Austria and brought with them a great love of the arts. Many enriched the cultural life of Britain considerably, for instance in music the Amadeus Quartet, and artists such as Frank Auerbach, along with writers such as Elias Canetti and Arthur Koestler.
Creators: Carol Seigel
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