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So Long, Shloimy Alman

November 28, 2020
by the gentle author

Shloimy Alman died last Sunday 22nd November, just two weeks short of his seventieth birthday. Here Rachel Lichtenstein considers his life and photography.

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 lived in the collective village of Kfar Daniel.

Photographs copyright © Estate of Shloimy Alman

You may also like to take a look at

A Walk With Shloimy Alman

14 Responses leave one →
  1. November 28, 2020

    Mr Shloimy Alman — R.I.P. — שָׁלוֹם

    Love & Peace

  2. Geraldine Anslow permalink
    November 28, 2020

    Oh how wonderful to see these photographs! I especially love the picture of Roggs. In the nineties I lived across the street in the erstwhile Kinder Arms at the corner of Sly Street and Rampart Street (that place had basements worthy of Piranesi by the way). Roggs beigels were my special weekend treat, sesame beigel with chive cream cheese always, taken home wrapped in wax paper; divine! There was a well-fed grey tabby asleep among the rollmops and the gentleman in the picture introduced me to REAL pickles from those fabulous barrels and explained if I ate them I would never get cancer.
    Thank you Mr Alman for capturing this place. It felt like a place from another time. My you rest in peace.

  3. aubrey permalink
    November 28, 2020

    A breathtaking obituary of Shloimy’s life and times. Thank you G.A.

  4. November 28, 2020

    Some of these shops were still trading in the early 1990s when we lived in Myrdle Street – what a treat to see them again, especially the string shop C H N. Katz in Brick Lane and Rogg’s in Cannon Street Road. When we knew him, Mr Rogg kept a cat and and sold mammoth onions.

  5. Adele Lester permalink
    November 28, 2020

    A walk through my childhood! Baruch Dayan Emet. (Rest In Peace Shloimy)

  6. Rob Cherry permalink
    November 28, 2020

    Thank you GA for honouring this soul. You do a great service to him and the wider Spitalfields community.

  7. November 28, 2020

    The C H N Katz sign is still there on Brick Lane. Also, after my great-grandfather passed away, my great-grandmother married Meyer Zigmond a wine merchant whose premises were at 97 Commercial Road. Fourth image down.

  8. Ros permalink
    November 28, 2020

    I love these photos that so affectionately conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of yet another vanished world. They draw you right in. I’m sad Schloimy has died – I think I’d heard he was in poor health – but am grateful for his beautiful legacy.

  9. Paul Shaviv permalink
    November 29, 2020

    Is there an album of this collection of photos????

  10. November 29, 2020

    The Food Inspectors would lose their minds if they saw any of this today, and shut them down.

  11. Elaine permalink
    November 30, 2020

    My husband first met Shloimy in 1955 on their first day of infant school. He was asked to take care of this four year old Yiddish speaking boy. I became friends with him in 1968. Such a special friend, now so sadly missed. He has left an amazing legacy with his photographic history of a bygone era both in London and Manchester. Rest in peace, you are loved and missed and always remembered.

  12. Debbie permalink
    November 30, 2020

    This is a wonderful tribute to Shloimy, our dear friend, who is already so sadly missed.

  13. November 30, 2020

    So sad that our dear Shloimy has passed! So wonderful that he leaves a legacy of photos, chronicling the history of Jewish life in the East End. One of his photos is of the soup kitchen where my father would come to buy a roll and a bowl of soup for 1d. in 1940. As a refugee from Hitler he found himself penniless and used to walk from Shepherds Bush just to get to the soup kitchen.

  14. Naftali Trenter Moser permalink
    October 25, 2021

    Shloimy We miss you – you have been gone for almost a year. Your remarkable photos stay in my mind as a record of an era and of precious values and traditions. I try to picture you walking around and being part of all these experiences. The photos also give an indirect glimpse into my own childhood in faraway Melbourne. You created a very important record. We cherish your memory and our very many days spent together on Kfar Daniel, and now with Linda and the family.

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