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Culture and Festivals
Children always played an important part in the immigrant Jewish community. Many of the new arrivals had young families, or would soon settle to have them. The streets where most of the immigrants lived were crowded with children: in some of the tenements, like the Rothschild Buildings in Spitalfields, there were more children than adults.
The education that the immigrant children received had an important bearing on the way the whole community integrated into British society. Until the education reforms of the 1870s, which introduced compulsory elementary education for all, schooling for immigrant children, as for others, was generally haphazard. Those who lived in the East End of London had the chance to go to the Jews' Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, which was founded in 1817.
In other areas, however, Jewish children would mostly have little choice between attending Christian schools (some of which wanted to convert children to Christianity) or being educated at home, though their local synagogue might offer Hebrew classes. After the 1870 Education Act, however, a number of Jewish day schools were set up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham on the model of the Jews' Free School in London. By 1893 the Jews' Free School itself had 3,900 children on roll, just under half of them born overseas.
Immigrant parents were keen to send their children to Jewish day schools to keep them steeped in Jewish culture. The aim of the school authorities, however, was to anglicise the new arrivals, to teach them English instead of Yiddish, and to turn ghetto children into proper Englishmen and women.
The schools seem to have succeeded in this aim: an 1894 Board of Trade report describes how the children 'enter the school Russians and Poles and emerge from it almost indistinguishable from English children'.
The majority of Jewish children went to local state schools, which in areas of high immigration became virtually Jewish. Schools like Commercial Street School in Whitechapel had so many Jewish pupils that they adapted their timetable to the Jewish religious calendar, organised Jewish prayers and even employed Yiddish-speaking teachers.
The aim was to ensure, as one headmaster put it in 1902, that the 'Jewish lads who pass through our schools will grow up to be intelligent, industrious, temperate and law-abiding citizens who add to the wealth and stability of the British Empire'.
Most Jewish immigrant children left school at 14 to find work. It was not until the years after the First World War that more Jewish families could afford their children to stay on and gain educational qualifications.
Most children, especially boys, were also expected to attend Hebrew classes outside normal school hours. Some went to private chederim in the home of a religious teacher. These classes were scattered throughout the immigrant neighbourhoods, and children attended classes for long hours, before and after school, at the cost of a few pence per week.
Other children went to a Talmud Torah, a full-time religious school, of which there was at least one in all the major centres of Jewish settlement.
Religious education for a boy would culminate in his bar mitzvah at age 13, when he would read a portion of the service, in Hebrew, at the synagogue one Saturday morning.
For the immigrants this coming-of-age ceremony could be celebrated only modestly. A small party would be arranged at home, and the parents would be expected to buy the bar mitzvah boy a new suit!
After leaving school, teenagers were encouraged to join youth clubs, of which there were a great number in most immigrant districts. In London these included the Brady Street Boys' Club (founded 1896), the Victoria Club (1901), the Oxford and St George's Club (1913), or, for girls, the West Central Jewish Girls' Club or the Butler Street Club.
The clubs were immensely popular, providing recreational, sporting and social activities for adolescents who had little alternative entertainment. At the Butler Street Club, for instance, there were over 27 classes to choose from, as well as outings and Sunday rambles.
The boys' clubs placed great emphasis on sport, particularly boxing, which for a few provided a permanent escape from the poverty and tedium of everyday life. According to the 1903 Annual Report of Butler Street Girls' Club, the clubs were a way of giving girls 'a helping hand, at that most critical period of their lives, when they are emancipated from the discipline of school and are thrown upon their own resources'.
Those who ran the clubs saw them as another way of making immigrant children feel 'a pride in being Englishmen'. This was particularly true of the Jewish Lads' Brigade, a popular and influential movement set up in 1895 by Colonel Albert Goldsmid and modelled on the Church Lads' Brigade. Goldsmid wanted to 'iron out the ghetto bend' with an organisation that would instil discipline and patriotism, and which encouraged physical activities, sports and camping.
Where possible, the Jewish community leaders tried to ensure that children who had been orphaned, or whose parents were unable to care for them, would still be looked after in a Jewish environment, and not become a burden on the state. One of the largest and most respected institutions was the Jewish Orphanage at Norwood, South London. It provided residential care for large numbers of children from the 19th century until its closure in the 1960s. The sexes were separated at the orphanage, and brothers and sisters were allowed to meet only one afternoon a week - which was an opportunity, too, to meet friends of the opposite sex.
Jewish children who fell foul of the law would be sent to reform schools , such as the Jewish Industrial School in Hayes, where their religion was respected. Read Home Office papers dating from the 1880s on provision for Jewish children in Reform and Industrial Schools.
Outings away from home were rare for the immigrant child. For those growing up in the East End, a trip to Victoria Park in Hackney - a four-mile walk from home - was quite an adventure. In the summer holidays thousands would make their way there to enjoy games of football and cricket, and even a swim. The pupils at Jews' Free School had the excitement of an annual outing to Crystal Palace. For a few lucky children, a trip to the seaside might be arranged by their school or club.
Read the full booklet prepared for the Dempsey Street School outing to Lyme Regis in 1983.
Members of the Jewish Lads' Brigade went on annual camps in the countryside, and enjoyed the rare treat of being able to sleep in tents, cook on a camp fire and exercise in the open air.
Nearly 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were admitted to Britain as refugees in 1938-39. Some were placed with Jewish families, some with non-Jewish families, and others were looked after in hostels. Read the story of one of the child refugees, Grete Rudkin.
All faced the difficulties of learning a new language and adapting to strange customs, not to mention the anxiety of separation from their families. After the start of the Second World War, they had the added worry of not knowing the fate of the parents they had left behind in their homeland.
In my heart of hearts, I both longed for and dreaded the end of the war, since it was bound to confirm what I feared all along; that I would never see my parents again.
Adult refugees could at any time renounce their former nationality, but children could not do so until they reached the age of majority. If they later overlooked this, and ever returned to the country they had fled, they would be at risk of being called up to serve in the army there.
Another group of children arrived Britain in late 1945. These teenage boys and girls, originally from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, had suffered appalling treatment under the Nazis through slave labour and in the ghettos and concentration camps. The British Government had agreed to admit 1,000 young camp survivors, under the protection of the Central British Fund and the Committee for the Care of Children from the Concentration Camps, but only 732 could be found.
Most of these youngsters had lost all their families, and many had witnessed their deaths. Housed in hostels around Britain and with support from many, including earlier refugees from Nazism, they were slowly helped back to normality, and given the chance to build new lives.
As the Jewish community became more established, and people moved away from the original areas in which they had settled, educational opportunities widened:
Schools such as Hackney Downs in London took in more and more Jewish children. In the 1940s and 50s about half the intake was Jewish, and the headmaster would alternate between a Jewish and non-Jewish head boy each year. Many independent schools, however, continued to confine the numbers of Jewish children admitted to a quota until the 1970s.
Maintaining Jewish links remained important for young people whose families had moved to the suburbs. Zionist youth groups such as 'Habonim' were popular in areas such as Cheetham Hill in Manchester, Chapeltown in Leeds or Cricklewood in London. As well as sporting and social activities, youth clubs also emphasised the importance of a Jewish identity. A member of the very popular Clapton Jewish Youth Centre wrote in 1949: 'Since becoming a Clapton member, I have learnt not only how to hold a table-tennis bat, but to love and respect my religion.'
Continental Britons, Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe (Jewish Museum and The Association of Jewish Refugees, 2002), (Grenville, A)
Cesarani, D (ed), The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (Oxford, 1990)
Endelman, Todd M, The Jews of Britain 1656-2000 (University of California Press, 2002)
Gartner, L, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914 (2nd edition, 1973)
Lipman, V D, A History of the Jews in Britain since 1858 (Leicester, 1990)
Romain, Jonathon, The Jews of England (Michael Goulston Educational Foundation, 1985)
On Growing Up
Black, G, JFS: The History of the Jews Free School since 1732 (Tymsder Publishing, 1998)
Jewish Museum, What about the Children? 200 years of Norwood Child Care, 1775-1995 (1995)
Kadish, S, 'A Good Jew and a Good Englishman': The Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade 1895-1995 (Vallentine Mitchell, 1995)
Rose, C, Touching Lives - A Personal Story of Clapton Jewish Youth Centre, 1946-73 (YouthWork Press, 1998)
Creators: Carol Seigel
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