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Making and Remaking the Jewish East End: Space, Language and Time

About the project

The experience of immigrant minorities in Britain remains under-researched. Our project focuses on one case study: the history of Jewish immigrants to east London, their children and grandchildren.

London Friends of Yiddish Language reception for the Canadian Yiddish poet Chava Rosenfarb, March 1949, Berner Street, E1 (Courtesy: David Mazower Collection)

Around 150,000 Jews migrated to Britain in the late Victorian period, the majority settling in east London. Their story has largely been written from sources produced by the leaders of the established Anglo-Jewish community, who regarded immigrant Jews as profoundly different from them – poor, pious and politically radical – and who had little understanding of the East End environment where Jewish immigrants settled. However, this perspective has limited our understanding of Jewish culture and social change in modern London.

This project seeks instead to attend to the voices of working-class and lower middle-class East End Jews. Crucially, this entails study of the Yiddish language culture of Jewish immigrants, which flourished in east London in the early twentieth century and subsequently became a formative influence on Jewish culture after World War II. The project analyses a body of rarely used sources in Yiddish and English-language popular culture, drawing on literature, periodicals, theatre, songs, and oral history recordings. Contesting the still dominant view of Yiddish-speaking immigrants as pliable subjects moulded by philanthropy and schooling, our study examines the forms of agency and creativity they exerted in the process of acculturation.

Courtesy of Jewish Museum, London.

Instead of assuming that Jewish immigrant culture in the East End was inward- and backward-looking, we approach it as a mobile, hybrid and transnational phenomenon. For immigrants and their children, the East End was experienced not as a ghetto but through relationships to other social and cultural spaces: to the West End Jewish world but also to European or north American centres of Jewish culture, to Cockney London and to other immigrant communities. We explore how this diasporic hybridity was enacted in immigrant culture, including London Yiddish – a dynamic language that absorbed and adapted words, ideas and literary forms from eastern Europe to the East End.

Research for the project is being conducted by scholars from Queen Mary University of London and Birkbeck, University of London. As part of the project, oral history recordings are being transcribed with project partners the Jewish Museum, London and Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive. Public events linked to the project will take place at the Jewish Museum and THLHLA from autumn 2022.

Willem van de Poll, Petticoat Lane, 1947 – Dutch National Archives.

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