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Shloimy Alman, Photographer

September 30, 2019
by Rachel Lichtenstein

Rachel Lichtenstein introduces the photographs of Shloimy Alman, which are published here for the first time and will be the subject of a one day exhibition at Sandys Row Synagogue next Sunday 6th October, 11:00am-6:00pm. Click here to book a ticket

Harvey Rifkind, president of the synagogue, told Rachel about this collection of unseen photography taken in the seventies and, in May this year, Harvey and Rachel visited Shloimy in Israel where Rachel interviewed him and scanned over three hundred of his pictures.

Rachel’s piece features excerpts from her interview with Shloimy.

Shloimy Alman was born in Manchester in 1950, three years after his Polish Jewish parents arrived in England in 1947. His father Moishe came from Tarłów, a small town half way between Krakow and Warsaw. He taught Yiddish before the war and became active in the Bund in Wlotzlawek. His first wife and child were killed during the Holocaust. Moishe spent the war years in a Siberian labour camp working as a lumberjack.

After the war Moishe was instrumental in starting the first Yiddish school for the surviving Jewish children in Walbrzych, which is where he met his second wife Sara Scheingross, Shloimy’s mother, and her daughter Eva, aged six. In 1947, Sara and Moishe married and left for Manchester where Moishe’s two brothers had settled before the First World War. ‘For my mother after coming from pre-war Warsaw which was, in terms of style akin to Paris, Manchester was a disappointment to her,’ Shloimy recalled.

His parents craved the vibrant Yiddish culture of Poland which was largely missing in post-war Manchester, although there were still a number of Jewish shops and businesses, particularly in the Cheetham Hill Rd, High Town and Strangeways areas. Shloimy would accompany his mother on shopping trips. ‘There were very few children of my pre-school age then who were speaking Yiddish so I was an attraction,’ he said. ‘When we went to the grocer, he’d shove his hand in the barrel and shlept out a sour cucumber for me. If we went to the deli, I’d have a stick of vursht. When we went to buy the live chicken, before taking it to the slaughterhouse, the owner would find a warm egg, then poke some holes in so I could suck the egg. I was a child celeb, in many ways spoilt rotten by most of the shopkeepers because I spoke to them in Yiddish.’

Shloimy’s Uncle Lazar had a barber’s shop and was involved in Yiddish literary and Zionist circles. ‘He had an amazing Yiddish library upstairs and, despite the fact he was a working man and had no formal education, he was tremendously well read. When the Yiddish theatre came to Manchester the actors would be put up on the barber’s chairs to sleep overnight and served the most magnificent breakfast by Lazar in the morning.’

Lazar introduced Shloimy’s parents to the monthly Yiddish magazine Loshn un Lebn (Language & Life), edited and compiled by London’s foremost Yiddish poet, another Polish émigré, Avram Stencl. They took a monthly subscription ‘and looked forward to its arrival with tremendous pleasure, reading the magazine from cover to cover.’ Moishe was soon writing articles in Yiddish for the magazine. ‘My father never went to London and Stencl never came to Manchester but they regularly wrote to each other.’

After Moishe died in 1964, ‘even when my mother had no money, she still kept up her subscription and read the magazine religiously’ said Shloimy. One Saturday afternoon she went to London and sang at the Saturday afternoon Friends of Yiddish meetings, which Stencl had established in 1936 after his arrival from Poland. Shloimy grew up hearing stories about the legendary Yiddish poet and years later after his parents had died, he wrote to the poet and asked if they could meet.

Like the Manchester Jewish shopkeepers of his childhood, Stencl was delighted to hear from someone of Shloimy’s generation who was a fluent Yiddish speaker and he invited the youth worker in his twenties from Manchester to meet him in Whitechapel. They met for the first time in the summer of 1977 in the ABC café near Whitechapel Station. ‘It was the place where quite a few of the people would meet before the Saturday afternoon meetings to have tea and cake, then they would all walk off together to Stepney Green to Beaumont Hall, where the meetings took place.’

The poet was already in his mid-seventies by then. ‘He cut an impressive figure,’ said Shloimy, ‘with his electric blue eyes, trilby hat and well-cut but shabby suit. He always had a copy of Loshn un Lebn under his arm and was always trying to hawk it.’

On their first walk, Stencl led him to Bevis Marks Synagogue in the city, the oldest synagogue in London, established by Sephardi Jews in the seventeenth century. ‘He walked very quickly for an old man I had trouble keeping up with him. As we walked and talked, in Yiddish of course, he pointed out places on the way, where the Jews Free School had been, the site of the Jewish Soup Kitchen, Bloom’s restaurant on Whitechapel High St and the many small synagogues, which were still operating.’ Shloimy was amazed by the amount of Jewish institutions, shops and people still evident. ‘People kept telling me the Jewish East End was dead but for me, coming from Manchester, it was buzzing with life and activity.’

They passed run-down tenement blocks and stopped briefly at Whitechapel Library, known as ‘the university of the ghetto.’ After their walk, Shloimy went with Stencl to the Friends of Yiddish meeting. There were about twenty people there who were all very welcoming. After this first, visit Shloimy began attending these meetings regularly whilst visiting his parents-in-law in London. ‘I wanted to be in that atmosphere that my parents so loved, to hear Yiddish literature being spoken and talked about again. It was most important. Stencl invariably opened with one of his poems, then he would discuss anything from the Torah portion of the week to a current piece of news. Others sang, really put their soul into it, lots of different people got up to speak, read, anything went, as long as it was in Yiddish.’

After his initial walk around Whitechapel with Stencl, Shloimy started exploring by himself before the Shabbat meetings, often drifting around the streets, coming across things by accident. ‘Knowing that places like Commercial Rd were important, I’d wander along and see a Jewish shop name and photograph it.’ He spent days recording Jewish life, from shuls to deli’s, shops, market stalls and traders. He recorded the textile-trimming merchants. ‘I love this picture of three gentlemen with trilby hats selling cloth. My father was a tailor’s son, that’s how he always described himself. My father sewed beautifully, my grandfather’s eldest son became a tailor and his eldest son became a tailor, and I remember going to buy cloth with my father and watch the way he felt it, stretched it, it was an art, a science.’

He recorded kosher poulterers in Hessel St. ‘Shop after shop, stalls with chickens plucked and hanging from a barrow, they were all surviving, all doing business, it was still a rich Jewish landscape.’ He took photographs of kosher wine merchants, the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre – ‘I remember some of the actors who played there coming to Manchester and staying at my uncle’s house’ and the site of the Federation of Synagogue offices in Greatorex St, where he visited the Kosher Luncheon Club run by Connie Shack in the same building where ‘You got a good meal for a reasonable price – it had a specific European style.’

He took slides of the Jewish bakeries – Free Co, Cohen’s, Kossoff’s, Grodzinski’s and beigel shops in East London at the time. ‘They were all friendly, loved me coming in and chatting in Yiddish and taking a picture.’ He went into the Soup Kitchen on Brune St, which was sending out pre-packed food ‘Jacobs Crackers, eggs, Dairylea cheese, spaghetti’ to elderly Jews living in the area.

On Brick Lane, he photographed Jewish booksellers, newsagents, textile merchants. ‘All these places existed, everything the community needed – it told me how large the community still was. It wasn’t on its last legs, it was vibrant.’ On Cheshire St he saw the work of Jewish cabinet makers outside their workshops and during one visit he managed to get inside the Cheshire St Synagogue, ‘which was the most remarkable find, it was a Shabbat and the door was slightly open so I went inside and saw all this beautifully lathed woodwork done by the cabinet makers of the street. It was a working man’s shul, around the walls the donations were listed, some as little as two guineas. They made this place with their own hands. And because of the wood the synagogue had this warm, welcoming atmosphere. When I went there, there were exactly ten men praying, they had the most magnificent Kiddush, almost a full meal at the end of the service, arranged for them by the Bangladeshi caretaker because nobody lived near the shul, and they all had a long walk back home.’

He photographed the entrance to Black Lion Yard, once known as ‘the Hatton Garden of the East End’ because of all the jewellery shops there, although most of the street and shops had been demolished by then. He took pictures of the Whitechapel Waste, of the market stalls and street life, of Stencl selling his magazine to an alter bubby (old grandmother), the London Hospital, the nearby Brady St dwellings, ‘dark and ominous looking tenements which were pulled down soon after.’ He explored the back streets, visited little shops, tobacconists, market stalls and Jewish delis. ‘Roggs was my favourite, he’d always be in that old vest, sticking his great hairy arms into a barrel of cucumbers he pickled himself.’ He photographed the window of the room in Tyne St where ‘Sholem Aleichem stayed on his way to America from Odessa.’ Most of the time Shloimy walked alone but sometimes Stencl would join him. On one of these walks Stencl took him to Narod Press on Cavell St where Loshn un Lebn was printed and introduced him to the typesetter, a shy orthodox man who allowed Shloimy to take his portrait.

Overtime Shloimy became real friends with Stencl who he described as ‘a Hasid of Whitechapel. The place was good to him, it gave him a home, it gave somewhere he could write in peace (apart from the Blitz of course), he was always grateful for that, his poetry expresses his love for the place.’

Shloimy also fell in love with the area and he documented what he saw. He said, ‘I am not a photographer, I make no claim. The reason that I started this is I wanted to be able to show my children about Jewish life in England before I immigrated to Israel. It was obvious to me that what I was looking at was soon to vanish. It might be because I was an outsider that I saw this so acutely or because I had already witnessed this disappearance of Jewish life in Manchester. For an intense period of time I photographed what I considered important landmarks and eating places of Jewish London.’

His photographs capture the era absolutely and survive as a unique record of a disappeared world.In 1978 Shloimy, his wife Linda and twins made Aliya to Israel, and since December 1982 he has lived in the collective village of Kfar Daniel.

Photographs copyright © Shloimy Alman

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. September 30, 2019

    Wonderful to read Rachel’s presentation & to see the photographs : brought back fine memories, especially of Rogg’s (the guy in the white vest who ran the shop) where I would buy beigels (salmon & cream cheese when I could afford them !) & pastries. When did Rogg’s close down : surely it was there until the late 1990’s ? And does anyone remember the name of the proprietor pictured ?

  2. September 30, 2019

    A significant historical record. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Ian Silverton permalink
    September 30, 2019

    Blooms brings back good memories of my time in the East End loved going to that place great food , with very rude and aggressive waiters serving you, in between selling you King Edward cigars on the cheap, always a fun night out, even had its own car park at the side, next door was Alberts Men’s wear selling the best Swiss Shirts you could buy at the time, be calm London.

  4. September 30, 2019

    Wonderful photos, bringing back lots of memories of my childhood and youth there. Valerie

  5. Paul Ridgway permalink
    September 30, 2019

    From 1972 to 1981 I worked on Tower Hill and Friday lunchtime would walk out to Mr Gunstock’s in Hessel Street to buy heimish cucumbers.
    We used to buy smoked salmon from Mossie Marks but where was he, in Blooms maybe?
    What a wonderful chronicle you have produced, pics and words, deserves to go around the world.

  6. John Venes permalink
    September 30, 2019

    Lovely photos.
    I was born in Bethnal Green and lived there till i got married in 1975 and had to move out as we could find nowhere to live in the area
    I spent many Sundays in Brick and Petticoat lanes and surrounding areas and these photos bring back vivid memories of everyday life as we lived it.
    We just assumed that was how things were and would go on forever.
    Never thought it would all disappear so rapidly and now it has all changed completely and forever
    Sad

  7. Ros permalink
    September 30, 2019

    I absolutely loved reading about Schloimy and his poignant story of being one of the last Yiddish-speaking children in England. The photographs are quite wonderful – who knew that the typefaces of shopkeepers’ names above their shopfronts could hold such power and memory. I remember many of them, and buying smoked salmon offcuts very cheaply in Wentworth Street in the 70s, as well as hot tasty latkes, and I remember the sound of the gaslights still in Hessel Street then. I’ve booked a ticket to the exhibition on Sunday. Many thanks.

  8. Vaughan Heenan permalink
    October 1, 2019

    Wonderful photos. Used to have suits tailored by Haff Bros in Commercial Rd, cloth from the chap next door to them. Superb work.

    Worked temporarily for Carnegy Fashions in Fashion Street. Loved my time there.

  9. Jonathon Green permalink
    October 1, 2019

    Am I right in thinking that the display of smoked salmon [pic 9] is from the lost but never forgotten and deeply regretted Marks deli (Wentworth Street/Toynbee Street corner)? I always thought they signed their death warrant by displaying a photo of their great cutter Mossy offering a perfectly cut piece of salmon to a visiting M Thatcher (presumably sucking up to her Finchley constituents)

  10. Richard permalink
    October 1, 2019

    I feel lucky to have seen some of this when I was at The London in the seventies. Wonderful record.

  11. October 1, 2019

    The Wine Merchant’s shop was at 97 Commercial Road. When my great-grandfather died, my great grandmother remarried a vintner, Meyer Zigmond in 1916. Fortunately, I have a photo of them both, Meyer has some kind of medal hanging on a cord around his neck and they did indeed reside at number 97.

    David

  12. October 1, 2019

    Wonderful photographs.A beautifully evocative piece of writing too from Rachel Lichtenstein.

  13. mick o'leary permalink
    October 1, 2019

    Wonderful piece – capturing a history now virtually disappeared. A real joy to read and feast my eyes upon. Being a frequent visitor to the Brick Lane area of 2019, good to know that new stories and histories have emerged to create a new chapter in the treasure trove that is the East End of London.

  14. October 1, 2019

    I’m not one to demand epaulettes on my purveyors, but that white’ish vest …

  15. Charlie permalink
    October 1, 2019

    I’m amazed that these pictures are from as late as the seventies. The first time I went round the East End in 1983 there was absolutely none of this left or at least very very little.

    It must have died out overnight….

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