London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Pre-War East End memories of Rev J K Goldbloom, Redmans Rd Talmud Torah, Johnny Isaacs, The Troxy Cinema and more by Asher Tarmon, once of Jubilee Street, now elderly and living in Israel

AS A SCHOOLBOY, growing up in the then flourishing East End, had its advantages. Everyone was more or less in the same boat and class distinctions were indiscernible. Though the elementary and central school populations were mixed, there was no barrier between the Christian and the Jewish children and no feelings or expressions of racial discrimination. Not in the classroom, not from the teachers, nor in the playground or the street. We were all of a kind—identifying with English history, its folk tales and songs, keenly interested in the annual Boat Race (somehow always cheering Cambridge rather than Oxford), mad about cricket and soccer, playing together all the seasonal games that were played all over the country. The hymns at morning assembly were clearly universal and never overtly Christian, thus making it possible for all to sing together in comfortable unison.

We lived on the third floor of a large complex of tenement housing, but the huge number of stairs were no hindrance to a boisterous and energetic young boy who enjoyed his life as I did. The distinction came, when and if you attended “cheder” in the afternoons, after you had your tea. My mother enrolled me at the renowned Redman’s Road Talmud Torah when I was seven. It was as if one attended a second school every day, an additional duty for being Jewish! The instruction, organisation and discipline were identical to those of a regular school. This “cheder” was very different from the usual Jewish religious educational institutions, in that all the instruction was in modern Hebrew (although the Ashkenazi pronunciation was used and not the Sephardi, as is now common). The spirit behind this, was the character of the man who founded and headed the Talmud Torah—the Rev. J. K. Goldbloom, a fervent Zionist who had been acquainted with Theodore Herzl himself. He was a wise and learned scholar and a much loved and revered leader in the wider community. He had to fight a bitter struggle to establish this visionary type of Hebrew-speaking “cheder”, but the orthodox rabbinate forced him to adhere to the Ashkenazi rather than the Sephardi pronunciation, which for them was too closely associated with Zionist ideology.

The teachers were thorough and soon I became enthralled with all the subjects taught—Grammar, Chumash, Rashi, Mishnah, Gmarrah. In becoming a star pupil, I was also earmarked for participating in the annual Prize Day play, written, directed and produced by the headmaster himself. This was, of course, always in Hebrew, on a theme connecting the current pioneering in “Palestine” with past celebrations of the major nature festivals. Whenever he visited Palestine, he would return with the latest songs being sung there by the pioneers and would introduce them into the plays he wrote. He was a man of innovation and introduced events into our lives to make them interesting and more satisfying. On Tu B’Shvat, we would be presented with small boxes resembling the JNF collection box, filled with almonds from the holy land. Annually, there was an outing to the countryside, replete with games and picnic, an unforgettable thrill riding in the then prevailing “charabanc”—an open-top type of bus.

From a very young age, my mother would take me to the Yiddish Theatre and I can still recall climbing the endless number of stairs, lit by gas jets set into the walls, to reach the highest gallery, which were, of course, the least expensive seats. This was her most enjoyable form of entertainment and little did she realise how she was inspiring me with a lifelong love of the theatre. The plays were mostly musical melodramas plucking at the heartstrings of the audience but ending happily. My own dramatic efforts came eventually in school plays, by appearing in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan,” and also in the annual play staged by my “cheder.” 

My deep grounding in Hebrew and love of the history of my people, was to lead me naturally to the Zionist youth movement Habonim, in the mid-Thirties. There was never much in the way of homework from school or cheder in my youth, so being the possessor of a pleasant treble voice, I was able to belong to a synagogue choir, at the Stepney Orthodox. I also played the violin for a time and was obsessed with the idea of becoming a conductor. Surreptitiously I would stand in front of a mirror and throw myself into the part, while listening to a few old 78 rpm records on a manually driven portable gramophone that came into our possession at home. In adolescence I went to sing in the mixed choir (children and adults of both genders) of the East London United Synagogue, where at the beginning of World War II, I was to be asked to conduct the choir in the “temporary” absence of the permanent conductor. I had already begun to lead a choral group, organising a Habonim Chorus that specialised in singing “Palestinian” folk songs for all manner of youth movement events. I had also joined the Habonim Central Choir, which met weekly at the movement’s offices in Soho. Sight-reading music and being able to impart the various voice parts by repetition, led eventually to my becoming the conductor of this choir too. There are two outstanding performances which I conducted that remain in my memory. The first is the full choral wedding service we performed as a gift for our original founder and conductor Shubi Olsvanger, and which we had prepared in the utmost secrecy, with the connivance of the minister of the Highgate Synagogue, until the day of the wedding. I had to teach all four voice parts of the responses and the hymns, etc. after the regular weekly practice was over, without Shubi cottoning on. The second is the four part rendering of the song “Sovi Sovi Mamterah” which I taught from a handwritten score, written especially for the sound-track of a film named “The Promised Land” that was being produced. The choir was accompanied by the London Symphony and was conducted at the recording studio by Muir Mathieson, a famous conductor of the time. Both my knowledge of Hebrew and music were gifts that were to stand me in good stead in the years to follow. 

In comparison with today's pace of life, the pre-war days of my youth, though lived in a relatively teeming city, were absolutely tranquil. There was no constant prevailing noise from motor vehicles, for there were very few indeed, apart from the commercial ones. Airplanes were a thing of the future, and became familiar only when the war was on. I remember seeing the enormous R101—the world’s largest airship, moving oh so slowly over London in 1931. The wailing of sirens, the blaring radios that seem to punctuate life wherever you are these days, were unknown. Transportation was by horse-drawn carts and the public conveyance, was the tram that rode on iron rails embedded in the cobbled streets. The greatest thrill was to climb to the upper section of the tram and view the scene going by at the daring speed of some 10 miles per hour! There was no telephone to disturb the home at all hours, no radio or TV, no stereo. They were not yet even invented. Pollution was a word that remained hidden in the dictionary. I recall graphically the daily delivery of milk, when the horse-drawn “chariot” would pull up with its large urns and you would ask for a pint to be ladled into the jug you had brought to the milkman. Later came the bottle delivery. No cars were ever parked in our streets, but one would see the horses resting between their traces, with their nosebags raised for them to munch away. When they left, there was a rush to collect the manure for the gardens.

Each season brought its traditional sights: the muffin man with his large tray balanced on his head and the wonderful smell when you toasted the muffins with the special long fork in front of the open fire; the glowing fire in the barrel of the roasted chestnut vendor; the large slices of watermelon on the open cart of the greengrocer; the triangular fruit-ice brought by the Wall’s Ice Cream man pedalling his square locker near the school. There were regular visits by the coalman, always with blackened face and hands, wearing a leather cowl over his head and heaving the coal-laden sacks on his shoulders, walking up large flights of stairs, if necessary, to dump his wares.

An interesting sight for us as youngsters was the knife-grinder who would work his wheel on a hand drawn cart and sharpen the knives for the women of the neighbourhood. Our street games were also dictated by the seasons, something that was instinctive and countrywide. We would enjoy pushing hoops of iron along the streets with a stick; playing cricket in the summer and the winter in the middle of the road, without fear of the traffic which was so mild; stringing hard chestnuts for playing conkers; matching fast revolving wooden tops against each other, games with nuts during Pesach.

The TroxyMy friend Yankel and I would spend hours at constructing elaborate machinery with the ubiquitous Meccano set, the favourite hobby of all boys of that era. Later we experimented with building a crystal set in order to hear the first broadcasts of the BBC through headphones. When the actual “wireless” came into being, we had to regularly take the glass acid-accumulators for charging, in order to give the set its power! Pocket money was never higher than a penny, unless you went to the cinema, where for a sixpence, at the new vast Troxy Cinema in the Commercial Road, you were entertained by a programme that is inconceivable today—2 feature films, a cartoon, a newsreel, a stage show with at least 3 different items accompanied by a live orchestra and a sing-along performance on the Wurlitzer organ! I still remember the first sound film, ”The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson, which was screened at the Mile End Cinema, next door to the most famous of the East End’s Chip shops “Johnny Isaacs,” where for a penny you got a whole mound of chips and sprinkled them generously with salt and vinegar (to this day chips without vinegar are totally tasteless for me!).


2012 update - The Troxy (above in 1980s Mecca bingo hall guise, below in 2012, as it is today) is undergoing restoration, including the re-installation of a mighty Wurlitzer cinema organ

Above, The Troxy's magnificent restored interior in 2012

Whenever I visit England I still compare the experiences of those times with today’s “technological advances”— I miss the steam trains of yore with their separate compartments and the corridors that ran for the length of each carriage; the two mail deliveries per day brought by the uniformed postman with his helmet that resembled an inverted gravy dish; the old familiar smells of the chimney sweep; the bread baking in the oven of the corner baker, the flat irons on steaming laundry, the fog, the special Jewish holiday foods. We had no electricity and all lighting and cooking were done by gas for which a penny had to be inserted into a slotted meter. To save on gas, I would read deep into the night by candlelight. Borrowing books cost nothing and my favourite haunt then as now was the local municipal lending library. They may have been hard times, those years of economic depression and rampant unemployment, but people’s needs were simple and there was no intrusive advertising for the “better life.” Whatever limited means parents possessed, they skimped on themselves for the sake of their children. They were conscious of the need however, to do what is expected when a Jewish holiday or a family celebration occurred. Somehow these events were made into milestones and though modest by today’s flamboyant standards, probably necessitated borrowing money from relatives and neighbours to ensure a measure of enjoyment.

Such was my Bar-mitzvah, held, after my having read the entire weekly portion instead of just the customary few sentences, in the humble abode of a family member. It was a home-cooked dinner and not catered, but the atmosphere was a happy one. I had written my speech inspired by my growing enthusiasm for the hoped-for renewal of the Jewish people’s future in their homeland—Palestine. I said that my dream in life was that when I grew into adulthood, I would be able to achieve my ambition by going to Eretz Yisrael to be a pioneer! Like others in my circle of friends and classmates, I was giving expression to the deep influence on our lives, by our “cheder” headmaster, the renowned “J.K.”, a number of whose star pupils became active in the Habonim youth movement as a result. Many of them who came through the war, made it to Palestine.

I could not have foreseen what eventually transpired—the major historical and cataclysmic happenings that my generation has witnessed, culminating in the unforgettable thrill of achieving an ambition that could only be dreamed of for centuries—to be present at the establishment of the State of Israel, to have participated in its defence and in its construction.

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