Growing up in pre War Jewish
Stepney & more - by Dr H Zeffertt (son
of Rev Mendel Zeffertt, Minister of the East London Synagogue
1928 to 1958
SCENE - 1900 - 1940
To understand the Jewish scene, one must look at the political, social and
demographic conditions over this period. It is very difficult for a person
living during this period to appreciate that the Jews were almost the only
immigrants entering the U.K. In the late 20s and right through the 30s
was A world slump, DEPRESSION. The Jews were not wanted by many who
accused them of taking jobs and housing. To counter this, the Jews made
every attempt to be true Englishmen. They did all in their power to learn
English, dropping Yiddish and they dressed as everyone else. These days
one sees all forms of dress worn by immigrants from all over the world. In
those days one rarely saw the dark dress of the orthodox (perhaps only in
parts of Stamford Hill) and one never saw anyone wearing a kippah (skull
cap). The rabbis and
ministers wore dog collars which made it easier for, say, hospital
the Jewish schools, one only wore head cover for religious lessons.
Everything was done to turn the children into true Englishmen. In Jewish
schools the British folk songs were taught, St.George's Day was celebrated
and hymns not mentioning anything specifically Christian were sung, e.g. O
God our Help......
the 30s one saw the rise of Nazism and Fascism. The British Union of
Fascists became a strong movement. In the East End, regular meetings were
held in Duckett Street and in Stepney Green. Jews were attacked - one of
the Frosh brothers was attacked. I remember being in an underground train
full of fascists going to a mass rally and when the train arrived at
Whitechapel Station, there were comments such as: "Hold your nos- the
stink." I remember showing a photo of a cub pack I ran to a typist who
at Shell Mex where I worked in those days. Her comment was: "Why! They are
all Jew boys!" I had a similar experience in Rectory Square where I
lived. I and a
group of the Jewish boys were talking to a non-Jewish girl when her father
came along and told her to go home. "I won't have you talking to these
Jew boys,” he said. And from a surprising source, my brother and some other
Jewish boys were perhaps somewhat misbehaving when the Rector of St.
Dunstan's came along and said: "You people must learn how to behave
yourselves, in this country" The move by the Home Secretary to ban
uniforms helped a great deal because the black shirts and jack-boots of
Mosley’s fascist s were a great attraction to young thugs. Also, it was a
great victory when the Dockers, communists and Jews
stopped the fascists marching through the East End in the Battle of Cable
Street in October 1936.
THE JEWISH EAST END;
The East End was a vital, vibrant area when the
Jews lived there. On Friday night after the evening meal and on Saturday
afternoon, thousands of Jews strolled along the Whitechapel Road. On
Saturdays and festivals the numerous synagogues were full. A non-Jewish
teacher came to see a Jewish service on the 7th day of Passover at East
London Synagogue (Rectory Square, Stepney) and it was difficult to find
him a place. Perhaps the most surprising sight in the area was a
blacksmith two doors away from the rear of East London Synagogue. As a
child it fascinated me watching the horses shoed and how the blacksmith
was able to put the shoes red-hot on to the horses feet.
EAST LONDON SYNAGOGUE -
this was under the United Synagogue.
Rev.J.F.Stern, B.A., C.B.E.
was the minister until 1928. He was nicknamed
"The Jewish Bishop of Stepney." Like many of the ministers of this period,
he chanted the prayers, whether in Hebrew or English in the sing-song way
of the Christian clergymen. He recited Hebrew with a marked English
accent. The synagogue had a mixed choir under Bernard Cousins. It was a
voluntary choir and it
attracted many choristers. The fact that it was a mixed choir did not
Chief Rabbis (Dr.Hertz and Sir Israel Brodie) from attending services.
However, the mixed choir did upset some congregants who broke away to form
the Stepney Orthodox Synagogue. (Rev Stern was also on the 1902 founding
committee of the Jewish
Religious Union which went on to become the
Liberal Jewish Movement). The shammas of the East London Synagogue was a
man named Kloot who merely had to raise a finger and anyone talking during
the service would immediately shut up. He was succeeded by Mr.Staal.
The chazzan in 1928 was Reverend
Moses Signaewsky (photo left) who had a sweet voice.
Unfortunately he died young. In 1932 a memorial service was held for him
at the East London Synagogue and the front cover of the leaflet printed
for the occasion is on the right. He was followed by Rev. Fuchsman who was one
of the greats. Rev Aaron Fuchsman was chazzan from 1933 to 1955. There were many Jews, "itinerant shul goers" who went round
the shuls to hear the chazzanim, or ministers giving shiurim (discourses).
Amongst these, were Bernard Casper (who became Chief Rabbi of South
Africa), Monty Richardson (minister), Alec Beck. The wardens were
Mr.Norden who was headmaster of the Stepney Jewish School before L.Cohen.
He was the father-in-law of Bernard Cousins. Other wardens were Lew
Courts, Mr.Lampel, Mr. Gluckstein - all had a bearing about them. On
were the Shabbat classes. I recall that Mr. Rabson was the headmaster.
classes lasted about an hour.
- of course there was Stepney Orthodox in Stepney
Green, next to the Jewish Hospital. The chazzan was Rev.Grundstein - the
family later Anglicised their name to ‘Grant’. We youngsters went there
on Simchat Torah because the
bags of fruit, sweets handed out to us were better than other shuls gave!
There was Jubilee
Street shul with Rabbi
Lewis Levene. His children were well known in the
community. Philpot Street had Rev. Addleman as chazzan.
GROCERY SHOPS AND NEWSAGENTS
in Stepney Green was Briskis the grocer
and Bard's the grocer,, ad half way down Whitehorse Lane was- Mushin's, and
Mile End Road was Cohen's. The newsagents in Stepney Green were Ruby
Freedman's, Davis's and near Mile End Road, Amiel's.
- in Stepney Green was Mushin ( a famous medical family) and later
Dr.Frohlich. Dr Torrence practiced in the Mile End Road .
- near Whitehorse Lane and Stepney Green was a
"fleapit" The Majestic. It was very small and up to 1930, it showed silent
pictures. Then in the early 30s the Troxy was built. It had plush
very comfortable seats. With the films one had a show –a mighty Wurlitzer
organ and 3 stage acts (Larry Adler often appeared). In the Mile End Road
was the Classic which
showed old favourites. Next to this was Isaac's the fish and chip shop
could buy a pennyworth of chips. Along the Mile End Road moving West
towards Gardiner’s Corner was the Rivoli. Pupils of all the Hebrew
Classes went there
on Chanukah and Purim
for films, entertainment and a bag of goodies. Although
Israel had not yet been established, the films were often Zionist. Going
round Gardiner's Corner along Commercial Road, was the Yiddish Theatre. As
the Jewish public spoke less and less Yiddish, the audiences dropped. One
did see notices in Yiddish and there were Yiddish papers.
- of course the main one was the London Hospital at Whitechapel. It was
said that the number of Jewish students studying medicine
was restricted, yet the chief medical officer was a Jew. I did hear that
the matron used to tell
off the Jewish patients for saying "Oy Vay”. …“Why don't
you say ‘Oh Dear like
everyone else?" My father used to shlep me round the hospital - perhaps to
make a minyan for the services. The Jewish hospital (in Stepney Green), Bancroft
Road hospital and unbelievably a Workhouse in South Grove. The latter was
towards Bow, a street off the Mile End Road.
- before the 1930s there was a Conservative M.P. for Stepney. Dr.O'Donovan
who was an odd mixture of a skin specialist and a pathologist. He had a
Jewish agent Joe Emden. But in those days no Jew would vote Conservative
and soon Labour got in. Danny Frankel was the M.P. Dr.O'Donovan came to
our shul a lot and informed us how friendly disposed he was to the Jews.
Many years later his son Patrick O'Donovan, a famous journalist, came to
Birmingham where I live. He told me that his father hated
Jews. I suppose it was understandable because he didn’t stand a chance of
being elected with so many Jews in the constituency! Danny Frankel was
ousted post-war and replaced by Phil Piratin, a Communist. It wasn't that
Jews were communists but they never forgave Danny Frankel for seldom
visiting his constituency during the War.
7th STEPNEY SCOUT TROOP
- this was a very popular troop in those days
and I believe that even to this day ex-members have reunions. In the early
days it was run by Len Kloot, the son of the shammas of the East London
Synagogue. Then it was run by Mr.Pond who was the caretaker of Stepney
Jewish School. He was an amazing man - so capable. At first the troop met
at a building adjoining the Stepney Green Dwellings and later in sort of
loft in Stepney Jewish School. To get up to the loft, one had to climb a
rope-ladder . It was a real challenge climbing one of those things!
There was also a branch of Rover Scouts and a
cub pack. The cub pack was run by a teacher Jack Goldberg (Gilbert). When
the numbers reached 80, it was divided into 2 packs - Jack running one and
STEPNEY JEWISH SCHOOL
I pointed out at the beginning of my article one of the purposes of a
Jewish school was to turn us into Englishmen. The teachers were very
good, smartly dressed and gentlemen. Life for teacher in those days was
hard. Many were unemployed and a husband and wife could not get jobs so
many of the wives changed their names. The names of the teachers I
remember are Harris (he wore bone collar shirts which were really
out-dated even in those days), Davis, Amstell, Shafran, DeHaan and
Silverstein. The head of the boys' school was L.Cohen and of the girls'
Kate Rose. Miss Levine was a teacher in the girls' school. She was loved
by all. She later married Rabbi Israel Brodie who became Chief Rabbi. In
the 30s other teachers in the girls' school were Miss Hart (very strict!),
Miss Offstein, Mrs.Finer, Mrs.Barsh, Mrs.Cival. As I mentioned above, the
Mr.Pond. He was able to do anything. The results at the school were
and many went on to higher education, ending up doctors, lawyers, etc. all
the professions that Jewish parents wanted their children to enter and
from which they derived "nachas."
JEWS' FREE SCHOOL
- others will be able to write about the school. However my contact with
it was that I went there for Hebrew classes. Most children went to cheder
on Sunday mornings but I for my sins, had to go
Sunday afternoons! The classes were meant to be higher classes. The
headmaster was a Mr.Kleinman. A very famous person taught there - Isidore
Wartski. He was an expert in Modern Hebrew and was the first lecturer in
Modern Hebrew at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
famous teacher was Rev. Joseph Halpern who wrote a number of books on
Jewish History. Of course to get there I had to wend my way through
Petticoat Lane. I was fascinated by the strong men freeing themselves from
straightjackets. And conmen working the three card ‘find the lady’’
trick. There was a sort of shed that I once peeped into. And inside was the
shochet slaughtering chickens. As a kid I could never understand how
these creatures were able to run around headless for some time! Nor could
I as a comparatively religious Jew understand how a Jew - Tubby Isaacs -
could sell jellied eels!
THE WAR YEARS
- when the War began the East End was transformed
overnight. Most of the children were evacuated and it became like a ghost
town. My parents remained in the East End throughout the war and each
night they went to a shelter near Bank. Looking back I feel that had a
bomb dropped anywhere near, they would not have stood a chance. Today most
Jews have moved out of the East End - first to Stamford Hill and
then to Golders Green/Hampstead (some families also moved to South
London – Phil, webmaster)
By Dr H Zeffertt, 2004