Jeremy Freedman, photographer
There is a particular time in March around six thirty in the morning when the sun rising sends a narrow ray of sunlight along Sandys Row to illuminate the front of the synagogue in Spitalfields and photographer Jeremy Freedman was there for weeks in the frost to capture this haunting image with its subtly modulated dark tones and luminous mackerel sky at dawn.
It was a university photographic project that first drew Jeremy to the orthodox synagogue, established here in Sandys Row in 1854 as The Society of Loving Kindness and Truth (a Mutual Aid Society offering a community of social support and traditional funeral for those who embraced the society), in a former Huguenot Chapel built in 1766. In the nineteenth century, when there were over one hundred and fifty synagogues in the East End, Sandys Row had one of the largest congregations. Now it is one of only four that remain active and, when Jeremy came along to take his pictures, he found the attendance was dwindling.
“As a photographer, I thought was very important to photograph the senior members of the shul and try to do it in a way that captured their essence.” explained Jeremy, introducing the remarkable series of portraits you see below, which are published here for the first time. As the work of a photographer at the beginning of a career, there is an impressive restraint to these austere, warm and dignified images that stand as fine examples of classical photographic portraiture.
More significantly, there is an emotional intensity present that reveals something of Jeremy’s relationship to his subjects. Because although Jeremy grew up in North London, he is descended through his father from generations of Dutch Jewish economic migrants who came to the East End in the eighteenth century, while on his mother’s side he is descended from those who came as part of the great migration of over one hundred thousand Polish Jewish people in the late nineteenth century. The name of Deborah Englesman, Jeremy’s ancestor upon his father’s side, is there upon the humble paper and cloth plaque recording the foundation of the synagogue – as one of the mothers, daughters and wives that the poor working men who formed the Mutual Aid Society honoured, in contrast to the rich benefactors whose names were dignified in stone at the foundation of wealthier synagogues in other parts of London. Among Jeremy’s many East End antecedents, his grandfather, Alfred, who was born in Wentworth St, was once the president of the synagogue and his grandmother, Pamela, ran The Princess Alice in Commercial St.
In the late forties and early nineteen fifties, when much of the East End was derelict due to bomb damage, Jeremy’s mother’s and father’s families were among thousands who left, to escape the stigma and poor living conditions. Jeremy’s father grew up in Finchley and his mother in Wembley. “Most of Anglo-Jewry stems from the East End but they never talked about it, as soon as they left they never looked back,” revealed Jeremy, speaking candidly, “it was a dark time in their family history.” Concluding with a grin, “Now they had flushing toilets and electrical appliances.”
Returning to the photographs, “These are the people that left,” Jeremy explained, revealing his personal perspective as proud guardian of these images. They are the work of a passionate young photographer looking at those seniors who are the living connection to his own Jewish patrimony. Once Jeremy had made this connection, to which these photographs bear testimony, he could no longer observe passively. “It was apparent that if I didn’t stop taking photographs and do something, this shul would close, so I joined the board, and I came up with ideas, and got my father involved too, as treasurer. I brought fresh blood and, in turn, this attracted other younger dynamic people. ”
Today Sandys Row is on the up again, welcoming approximately eighty businessmen from the City for lunchtime services on weekdays, plus the synagogue recently received a major award from English Heritage to preserve the roof and Jeremy is currently amassing a photographic archive of all the families, like his, that have been associated with the shul over generations.
“I feel at home here in these streets”, said Jeremy, reflecting affectionately upon this neighbourhood that holds so much of his family history. You will see him frequently these days in the places his ancestors knew so well, because he now has many reasons to spend time here in Spitalfields, through his involvement with the synagogue, as a weekly trader in the Thursday antique market and as a busy working photographer too.
Reverend Malcolm Gingold. © Jeremy Freedman
Harry Gilbert, warden of the synagogue. © Jeremy Freedman
Lilly and Ray Messophia. © Jeremy Freedman
Rose Edmunds. © Jeremy Freedman
Julie Smith and Pauline Rifkind. © Jeremy Freedman
Morris and Maurine Delew. © Jeremy Freedman
© Jeremy Freedman
Henry Glass, who arrived at Liverpool St Station as a child, as part of the Kindertransport.