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Whitechapel Noise

July 23, 2018
by Vivi Lachs

Vivi Lachs introduces her new book, Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant life in Yiddish Song & Verse, London 1884-1914, exploring popular musical culture and how it spoke of social realities encountered by recent arrivals in the East End a century ago

Vivi Lachs by Sarah Ainslie

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Hostu gezen a grinem”yid

hir blondzhendik aleyn?

Keyn koyrev nit, keyn goyel nit

un elnt vi a shteyn?

Di raykhe “kenen gornit ton”

Zey hobn tekhter, zin…

Di Londoner “komite-layt”

far zey iz er tsu GRIN.

Have you seen an immigrant Jew

Wandering here alone?

No relatives, no saviour

Just acutely lonely?

The rich ‘can’t do anything to help,’

They have daughters, sons…

And for the London ‘committee members’

He’s too new to be an immigrant.

London Bay Nakht (London At Night)

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This Yiddish poem by Morris Winchevsky was published in 1884 in the newspaper Der Poylishe Yidl (The Polish Jew). Set to music and sung, the lyrics articulate a complaint about the rich, powerful London Jewish leadership who ignored the suffering of the poor, the unemployed, the homeless and the most recent immigrants. Each verse asks ‘have you seen?.  London Bay Nakht pinpoints the social politics of its time – the homeless being moved on by the police and not allowed to rest, the death of a breadwinner leaving a family destitute, a newly-arrived Jewish immigrant not supported by the Jewish establishment until they have managed to survive in London for six-months. Morris Winchevsky was a Jewish socialist, a comrade of William Morris and his political poems became anthem for activists.

Whitechapel 1884 was a cacophony of  talk, debate, laughter and bickering. All in Yiddish, because from the early eighteen-eighties the East End became home to over a hundred thousand Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe. They lived in cramped rooms, formed new relationships, struggled to find work in tailoring sweatshops, argued over politics and religion, discussed the latest strikes, the best bargain in Petticoat Lane, and Aaron Nager’s new song at York Minster Music Hall in Philpot St. Yiddish posters plastered the walls and printing houses produced scores of Yiddish newspapers, journals, pamphlets, and songsheets. Yiddish was ubiquitous in the streets, cafes, synagogues, markets and theatres.

Whitechapel Noise is a collection of tales of Jewish East End immigrant lives before the First World War. These tales have not been told before because they come from lyrics of penny song sheets sung in the Yiddish music hall and from the poetry and satire of Yiddish newspapers and journals that lie forgotten in libraries and archives. Popular poetry and pop songs are unusual sources for historians, yet these lyrics are immediate, filled with clever allusion and cheeky innuendo. Fierce battles about politics, sex and religion emerge.

More than four hundred rhyming lyrics depict the rich mosaic of immigrant life – pickpockets outside Broad St Station, courting couples at Crystal Palace, families struggling to pay rent on Berner St, child prostitution in Victoria Park and infants selling matches outside the Stock Exchange in Cornhill. Characters include William Gladstone, Lord Rothschild and anarchist leader Rudolf Rocker, as well as Yiddish theatre stars Beki Goldstein and Joseph Sherman.  They speak of the 1892 general election, the 1905 Alien Act, and controversies surrounding the building of the Feinman Yiddish People’s Theatre in 1911. They reveal how the pressure of immigration changed religious practice and the roles of men and women. Lyrics describe working conditions in the sweating trades, child labour, and the age of consent. Others dramatise controversies over the decline of religious observance, levels of teachers’ pay, problems of gambling, sexual exploitation, and the clash between exponents of aesthetic high-brow Yiddish theatre and low-brow Yiddish music hall.

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In a sheyner zumer nakht

gey ikh mir fartrakht.

Tref ikh mayn vaybl vi a tayvl

volkndik bay nakht

in ridzhent strit -

es vert mir nit git.

Oysgeshnitn azoy vayt,

un vinkt tsu yunge layt.

Nu freg ikh aykh,

tsi iz dos glaykh?

A brokh ir dort in zayt,

nor ikh of kors

bin balebos.

On a lovely summer night

I go out strolling and contemplating

And meet my wife like the devil

walking at night

In Regent Street

It won’t be good for me.

Her low-cut dress,

And winking at young people.

So tell me

Is this right?

To hell with her

I am, of course

The man of the house.

Vos Geyst Nisht Aheym, Sore-Gitl?  (Won’t You Come Home Sarah-Gitl?)

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Arn Nager, a well-known Yiddish comic, played roles in the Yiddish music-hall of pathetic and disgruntled men whose wives were running rings around them. His song Vos geyst nisht aheym, Sore-gitl?, describes Sarah-Gitl out and about kissing men in pubs while her husband throws a tantrum, ineffectually trying to get her to come home. At the top of the songsheet, the instruction reads, ‘to be sung to the tune of Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?,’ a popular ragtime tune by Hughie Cannon written in 1902.

Yet Arn Nager’s song is far more than a mere Yiddish translation, the gender roles are reversed. Bill Bailey was gallivanting with other women while his wife pleaded with him to return, but in Yiddish the woman is given the promiscuous role. Why this turnaround? Clearly, it was not a reflection of everyday life. The situation may be funnier than the original, but there may also be a deeper reason. This is not the only song that pivots on gender role-reversal. Many similar examples offer an insight into the circumstances of immigrant life.

Amongst the audience, there were men who had chosen to leave the poverty of Eastern Europe to give their families a better chance in London yet struggled to be the breadwinner in this new world. Their wives worked long hours and they had to take in lodgers to make ends meet. The failure of their traditional role as patriarch gave them a sense of powerlessness and they may have taken cathartic relief in recognising a scenario in which a male protagonist experiences even greater humiliation than they had known.

You may notice words in the Yiddish text that come from English – popularly called Cockney Yiddish - such as ridzhent strit (Regent St), bavelkomt (welcomed), votsh un tsheyn (watch and chain) and bizi un slek (busy and slack periods in sweatshop work). The word grin in London Bay Nakht (London At Night) is the English word ‘green,’ taken here to mean a naive new arrival from Eastern Europe. London’s immigrant community was in a state of flux and this anglicized Yiddish reflected the spoken language of the Jewish East End streets.

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Shuln makht men do lehavdl poshet gor fun kloysters

Peysekh hit men op getray

teykef nokh dem seyder geyt men esn oysters

anshtot afikoymen est men gor pay.

People make synagogues here out of churches

They keep Passover loyally

Yet right after the Seder they eat oysters

Instead of the ritual matza they eat pie.

Freg Keyn Katshanes (Don’t Ask Silly Questions) 1900

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Many Eastern European immigrants were orthodox Jews and they often found London a challenging place to observe their religious practice. The established Anglo-Jewry had large synagogues which were more like churches than the small khevres or prayer rooms the immigrants prayed in. England brought added difficulties – of the requirement to work on the Sabbath and the temptation to abandon religion altogether, eating non-kosher pies and oysters. Some struggled with a middle way, seeking a practising Judaism that was more modern. Lyrics of these popular songs speak eloquently of day-to-day struggles as people assimilated with the changing reality of a new place, fulfilling their need to become settled and conform to new social standards.

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Freg nit keyn katshanes, es iz england

Don’t ask silly questions, this is England!

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Der Poylishe Yidl (The Polish Jew), Friday 15th August 1884

Morris Winchevsky

Der londoner kupletist, c.1903

Songsheet with photo of Arn Nager

The Sand Pit, from Living London 1901

Princess’ Hall from  Living London, 1901

Der Bloffer, The Giving of the Torah in Whitechapel, 1912

In a East End Jewish Restaurant, from Living London 1901

Click here to buy Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant life in Yiddish Song & Verse, London 1884 – 1914 by Vivi Lachs at 20% discount. Enter the code WHITECHAPELNOISE at checkout.

Click here to book tickets for Whitechapel Noise,  A Concert of Tales Illustrated by the Songs of Three Bands on October 4th at Tara Theatre, 356 Garratt Lane, SW18 4ES.

Click here for Don’t Ask Silly Questions, songs from the book recorded by Katsha’nes

Click here for Whitechapel, mayn vaytshepl, songs from the book recorded by Klezmer Klub

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Israel Zangwill’s Spitalfields

3 Responses leave one →
  1. John Barrett permalink
    July 23, 2018

    Communities may scatter; just keep the Jewish spirit going for ever and ever – Amen John a poet The Poetry Soc & Bus Pass Poets Bristol

  2. Adele permalink
    July 23, 2018

    This is the community into which my family immersed itself after fleeing the pogroms of Russia/Poland. Music kept them going; my grandparents lived in a Whitechapel tenement, struggled to keep enough food on the table to feed their children but found solace in their neighbors and their music. Their phonograph took pride of place on their kitchen table once they could finally afford to own one. Thanks for this unusual look into an almost forgotten immigrant life in the Jewish East End, GA.

  3. Ellen Whittle permalink
    August 10, 2018

    Reply from my Canadian cousin to whom I always send posts concerning the Jewish people in East London. Interesting.
    I got this back from Roz Usiskin to whom I sent the Whitechapel Noise article:
    “Thank you for sending this interesting piece. we have been singing songs by Morris Winchevsky for
    a very long time. The left wing school,in Toronto where UJPO is located is called the
    Morris Winchevsky Shule. It is unusual that this just came to light in London. roz”
    I should explain that UJPO is the “United Jewish Peoples’ Order,” a Communist/Socialist/Progressive organization that Roz chaired for years (and to which we belong). There are chapters in several cities in Canada.

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