London’s Lower East Side

London’s Lower East Side

Once 95 percent Jewish, the East End is rich in immigrant history.

Could one of the most bloodthirsty of all serial murderers have been Jewish? Would it have been more accurate to have called London’s notorious 19th-century killer Jacob the Ripper and not Jack?

With all his murders taking place in the heart of London’s Jewish Whitechapel district some police and journalists thought so at the time. And many of London’s nervous populace agreed, staging anti-Semitic riots at the height of the killings.

The prospect of Jacob the Ripper is one of the more bizarre examples of the fascinating history of the Jewish community in London’s East End, a story that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 at the height of popular dissent, the Russian authorities looked to deflect the disquiet and launched an anti-Semitic campaign that led to a wave of pogroms.

Between 1881 and 1914 more than three million Jews fled Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms and to seek a better quality of life. The majority went to the United States, many of them staying in London for a few weeks or even several years before crossing the Atlantic. Thousands of others eventually left London for Palestine and countries within the British Empire. London became the home for around 200,000 Eastern European immigrants.

This influx of impoverished Jews from far-off lands did not go down well with London’s Jewish establishment, which feared a rise in anti-Semitism. The new arrivals looked different, dressed differently, spoke a different language (Yiddish) and, as well as bringing with them their bedding and crockery, also brought their way of life.

England’s Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler issued a plea in 1890 to East European rabbis telling them of the dire conditions for immigrants, with overcrowding and poor health particularly in London’s East End quarter, already home to the majority of the capital’s existing 50,000 Jews. In an open letter, the chief rabbi wrote: “There are many in Eastern Europe who believe all the cobblestones of London are precious stones and that it is a place of gold. Woe and alas, it is not so … warn them not to come to Britain.”

But his plea fell on deaf ears, and the East End received most of the new arrivals, attracted by the area’s reputation for cheap living and existing Jewish population. Many found work in the clothing industry sweatshops, which were notorious for their unhygienic conditions and breeding grounds for fatal tuberculosis.

Rather than join the established synagogues, many immigrants set up small prayer rooms all over the East End, each invariably attracting Jews from the same village or town back in Eastern Europe. And in a show of nostalgia they named them after their former homes, one the Sons of Lodz, another the Brethren of Konin and so on.

Many eventually joined forces to form viable synagogues, and by the 1930s there were over 150 in just one square mile of the East End, with some blocks hosting several.

The oldest surviving synagogue in England, Bevis Marks, today straddles the border between the East End and the city’s financial district. Founded in 1701 primarily by Dutch Jews whose descendants had fled the Spanish Inquisition, it is Sephardic. Its original interior is perfectly intact, including the beautiful Renaissance-style ark.

Bevis Marks boasts several famous sons, most notably the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose father turned his back on Judaism and converted the family to Christianity when Benjamin was 12. This did not stop an Irish member of Parliament from later insulting the young politician’s Jewish roots. But Disraeli famously retorted: “Yes, I am a Jew. But while the right honourable gentleman’s ancestors were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Many sites in the East End continue to provide reminders of the neighborhood’s rich Jewish heritage; at one time Jews made up 95 percent of the population. There’s the soup kitchen that served 5,000 meals a day during the Depression years; now, paradoxically, its retained ornate facade provides a frontage to luxury apartments.

Across Commercial Street in revitalized Spitalfields, $1.5 million homes vie with each other to maintain the best-kept Jewish secrets from unknowing passers-by. One home was originally the city’s first, but short-lived Yiddish theater, which quickly closed after 17 people were trampled to death when someone maliciously cried: “Fire!” Another Spitalfields’ home has a 19th-century synagogue standing empty and unused in the back garden, a testament to Polish immigrants who built it after pooling their meager savings for several years.

And, of course, there’s the famous Petticoat Lane market, which still echoes with the spiel of Jewish traders although the sales patter today has a Bengali accent.

Just yards from The Lane is the site of the former Jews Free School, the largest elementary school in Europe (some say the world) with 4,250 pupils on its register in 1900. Most were Yiddish-speaking immigrant children, and in a desperate bid to Anglicize them, only English was permitted once entering the school gates. That policy worked, yet within a generation also contributed to the demise of England’s Yiddish theater and Yiddish newspapers.

But the JFS did spawn some special individuals who later found fame, such as variety artist Bud Flanagan, and bandleader Joe Loss. Not so famous but nonetheless colourful was 19th-century diamond billionaire Barney Barnato, who went from rags to riches and back again to rags.

Following World War II the majority of East End Jews gradually made good and moved out to the London suburbs and beyond. Another wave of immigrants moved in, this time Bangladeshis. Famous Brick Lane where the air was once thick with the smell of kosher delicacies like pickled herring and freshly-baked bagels now offers passers-by the whiff of curry and doner kebab.

But Mr. Epstein, the sole remaining Jewish trader in Brick Lane, proudly sports his skullcap outside his fabric shop as he chats with Bangladeshi neighbors. And perhaps nobody has told the owner of the Taj Mahal restaurant that the little paint-covered item on his doorframe is a mezuzah, the traditional tiny metal plate denoting a Jewish establishment.

Journalist and tour guide Stephen Burstin was born in London’s East End where he conducts Jewish-themed tours.