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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London


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

THE JEWISH 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 not 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 there 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 visitation. In 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......

ANTI-SEMITISM In 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 worked 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.

Petticoat Lane Street MarketTHE 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.

The East LOndon Synagogue in Rectory Square - converted to flats and now called Temple Court EAST LONDON SYNAGOGUE - this was under the United Synagogue. Rev J F Stern - 'Jewish Bishop of Stepney'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 deter the 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.

Reverend Moses SignaewskyReverend Moses Signaewsky - front cover of East London Synagogue 1932 memorial service leafletThe 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 Saturdays there were the Shabbat classes. I recall that Mr. Rabson was the headmaster. These classes lasted about an hour.

OTHER SYNAGOGUES - 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 by the Mile End Road was Cohen's. The newsagents in Stepney Green  were Ruby Freedman's, Davis's and near Mile End Road, Amiel's.

DOCTORS - in Stepney Green was Mushin ( a famous medical family) and later Dr.Frohlich. Dr Torrence practiced in the Mile End Road .

ENTERTAINMENT - 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 carpeting and 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 where one 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.

HOSPITALS - 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.

POLITICS - 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 the Jews were communists but they never forgave Danny Frankel for seldom visiting his constituency during the War.

7th Stepney Scout Group in camp at Ferrers, Devon-19307th 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 I the other.

Miss Hart's Grade 3 infant's class 1930 -Stepney Jewish SchoolSTEPNEY JEWISH SCHOOL  As  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' school -Miss 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 caretaker was Mr.Pond. He was able to do anything. The results at the school were excellent 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. Another 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

website copyright of Philip Walker