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At The Great Yiddish Parade

November 23, 2017
by the gentle author

Did you spot a ragtag procession of musicians, people in costume, children and dogs marching from Aldgate through Whitechapel to Mile End Waste last Sunday? Behind this light-hearted frolic was a serious intent, for this was the Great Yiddish Parade, commemorating the procession of Jewish unemployed and garment workers which took place here in 1889. Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I joined the parade to lend our support and bring you this feature.

Whitechapel was once the centre of London’s Jewish community but, during the last century, they left to seek better housing in the suburbs. Yet it remains a significant location for many whose ancestors arrived here a hundred years ago or more, escaping persecution in Eastern Europe and building new lives in this country. Indeed, many of those inspired to participate in Sunday’s parade had past family connections to Whitechapel.

The original parade processed from Berners St in Stepney to the Great Synagogue in Aldgate, demanding that the Chief Rabbi condemn exploitative working practices in East End tailoring trades. After he refused to do so, they continued their march up Whitechapel Rd to Mile End Waste, where last Sunday’s parade culminated in a series of speeches from the eighteen-eighties. A klezmer band led the procession enlivened by rousing Yiddish songs of protest.

Above all, it was a heartfelt celebration to honour the moral courage of those who, in their disadvantage, discovered the power of collective action, advancing social progress for all through their fight for better working conditions. Growing public awareness of modern-day slavery and recent challenges to the dubious practices of the so-called ‘gig economy’ suggest uneasy parallels with our own time, revealing that this struggle is far from over.

(Courtesy of Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick)

Orlando & Lucian Valman

The parade gathers in Aldgate

Vivi Lachs, Historian & Yiddisher, who established The Great Yiddish Parade

Vivi rallies her comrades

Nadia Valman, organiser of the parade, dressed as seamstress of 1889

Michael Ellman in his grandfather’s tailcoat

Walking through Aldgate

Esther Neslen, Singer

Poet Stephen Watts reads a banner carried by Artist Dan Jones

Rabbi Janet Burden of Ealing Liberal Synagogue and  her dog Raz

Julie Begum as Olive Christian Malvery, an Anglo-Indian freelance journalist who reported on the conditions of female and child workers in the East End in the eighteen-eighties.

“So I would like to ask you, brothers and sisters, have any of you here been to a bar lately? I am sure that many of you are familiar with the establishments of the Whitechapel Rd. Well, I want to talk to you about the lives of the barmaids who work there. Many of the young girls who earn their living in this arduous calling are subjected to numerous temptations. And yet they remain good, upright, and respectable women. Often they are obliged to stand behind a counter serving semi-drunken, coarse, and foul-mouthed persons of both sexes. They are obliged to listen to the vile talk of that class of man who makes it a pastime to insult young women engaged in this business. As a girl once said to me,’The life is hard enough without having to be insulted by cads.'”

Walking through Whitechapel

Jo Green, Clarinetist

Walking through Mile End

Phil Whaite, Saxophonist

Speeches at Mile End Waste beside the statue of General Booth

“I have come to you in the East End of London from the United States of America. My friends, I am an Anarchist, and I will tell you why. Anarchism is the great liberator of man from the phantoms that have held him captive. What are these phantoms? Religion, the dominion of the human mind, Property, the dominion of human needs, and Government, the dominion of human conduct, represent the stronghold of man’s enslavement and all the horrors it entails. Break your mental fetters, says Anarchism to man, for not until you think and judge for yourself will you get rid of the dominion of darkness, the greatest obstacle to all progress.”- Emma Goldman, Anarchist & Writer, spoke in Whitechapel in the eighteen-eighties

“‘A good man will be contented fast enough if he be fed and clothed sufficiently, but if a man be not well fed and clad, he is a base wretch to be contented.’ So says William Cobbett, and certainly the strikers might have one more banner with this inscription written on it. We have learned a good deal since William Cobbett’s time, and some of us have become very ‘refined’ indeed, but still on this foundation of victuals and shelter without anxiety must you build ‘refinement’ and all.'” – William Morris, who spoke at Mile End Waste in 1889

“I’d like to know if there are sadder sights anywhere than those we now see around us? I mean the homes of honest working men who have nothing to do, skilled workmen whose trades are itching at their fingers’ ends, who spend their days tramping about looking for work, and come home at night with empty pockets to hungry wives and children? I need draw no picture of these things. You not only see them, but feel them. You know what it is to have wives fainting for want of food, and children crying for crusts you cannot give them. ” – Words of a young man speaking on Mile End Waste from Margaret Harkness’ novel of 1888, Out of Work.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read about these other parades

At The Boar’s Head Parade

At the Spitalfields Nativity Parade

At the Italian Parade

At The Baishakhi Mela

12 Responses leave one →
  1. November 23, 2017

    This was an absolutely perfect post to read on the eve of the great American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is sometimes easy to take for granted all that we have to be thankful for, especially (or in spite of) the current sorry state of public life in this country. How uplifting to see people coming together to remember past triumphs, in period dress no less, and to remind us all that there is real power when citizens band together to oppose injustice. I am grateful to you for this post, Gentle Author!

    Best wishes from Diane in the U.S.

  2. November 23, 2017

    Great idea with the parade. Pity more people didn’t join in. Valerie

  3. James W permalink
    November 23, 2017

    Fantastic! I wish I’d’ve been there.

  4. November 23, 2017

    Great race my kind of people full of London Pride here. Text, costume and photos are all nice, !people you must keep that Yiddish heritage going its so full of richness and togetherness. I mean all this – from my heart. Shalom for now. John a bus pass poet

  5. Eddie Johnson permalink
    November 23, 2017

    We should all honour our past. Things are so muddled today that none of us are sure that “Yid’ or “Yiddish’ is acceptable but they are honourable words denoting the Jews of Europe, language is so important and we should preserve the best and not give too much away to the imagined tender feelings of people. Americanisms and American traditions flourish in this country while we neglect our own, eg Halloween for Guy Fawkes, Bagel or Beigel this horrible ~Black Friday that’s taken hold and the increasingly frantic promotion of ‘Thanksgiving’ so its good to see old fashioned traditions, however weakly, surviving.

  6. Michael Ellman permalink
    November 23, 2017

    A great occasion, enjoyed by all, and a step towards preserving the Yiddish language. Next time we must publicise it more: lots of people would like to join in

  7. Paul Loften permalink
    November 23, 2017

    Great tribute to East End Jews who played such a big part in working class history. Thanks to those who participated for reminding us of these long forgotten struggles to improve our daily lives. I would have gone along there if I only had known about it !

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    November 23, 2017

    Thanksgiving greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a wonderful reenactment of an event highlighting a condition that still resonates with everyday workers.

    The marchers outfits are so apropos. Great photos too. And the weather cooperated. Gracias…

  9. November 23, 2017

    Amazing costumes to revive the spirit of history in the streets of East End. The Anglo-Indian reporter looks amazing 🙂 Well done Julie!

  10. Alex Pink permalink
    November 23, 2017

    Great pictures Sarah

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    November 24, 2017

    Wonderful! for all the right reasons

  12. Susan permalink
    February 14, 2018

    This is wonderful. I do hope this becomes a tradition – so few people are aware of the history behind it.

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