Spring in Whitechapel

By A. M. Kaizer, translated by Vivi Lachs

Arye Mayer Kaizer (1892–1967) was a Yiddish journalist who wrote humorous sketches about the immigrant and second-generation Jewish community living in Whitechapel, in London’s East End, for the daily newspaper Di tsayt (The Times) from the 1920s until it folded in 1950. His more than 150 sketches offered humor in the midst of the Depression. Kaizer headed the Association of Jewish Relief Organisations, organizing aid to Eastern Europe and writing about conditions there. As chair of the Association of Jewish Journalists and Writers he hosted well-known Yiddish writers visiting from abroad.  

Kaizer’s sketch “Spring in Whitechapel” was first published in Di tsayt on April 24, 1932. The East End, of course, was not known for its nature: it was crowded and dirty, and during the Depression workers, especially those in the tailoring trade, struggled to make ends meet. Beneath the sketch’s humor lies the perspective of urban workers starved of nature. It ruefully laughs at the difficulty in finding a patch of sky, a ray of sunlight, running water, freshly picked flowers, earth, air and light, and milk straight from the cow.  

The sketch is satirical, accentuating and parodying London Jewish life. In the story’s search for signs of spring we tour East End shops, the Mantlemakers’ Union, the Jewish immigrant shelter, a Yiddish theater, and the Beth Din Jewish court—but we ultimately find a sense of nature’s absence. Springtime should bring joy, freshness, and a feeling of hope, yet the tour of Jewish Whitechapel finds none of this. While the Workers Circle sponsored camping trips in the countryside, and many in the community holidayed by the sea, the story’s futile search for a sunbeam reveals the reality of the daily grind. 

 

Spring is here! So says the Jewish calendar, and so say the poets. I went out to greet the spring. I wandered around Whitechapel for the whole day, with my head tilted back scouring the heavens for a patch of blue. I searched from Mile End Gate to Aldgate Pump for a hint of a sunbeam—but there was none.

A temperamental sky, cheerless and unsettled, covered with a gray blanket splattered with yellow-gray patches. Across its breadth hung a blue and white banner with a Yiddish caption: “Come to the Jewish National Fund bazaar in the Whitechapel Art Gallery.” This banner has hung over this patch of sky for years, and it will hang and hang, just as the same gray sky will hang over our heads tomorrow and the day after.

I dropped my eyes to the ground and noticed how streams of murky water were running down the streets of Whitechapel, and I deduced from this that the ice had melted and that spring was really here. It reminded me of my shtetl before Pesach, when the snow melted and the gutters and puddles flowed rapidly, carrying chunks of dried-up cholent, feathers, and leftover vegetables. Here too I noticed gutters clogged with fish heads, chicken innards, and other wonders. But my landsman Yerukhem the teacher, known as “the Philosopher,” said I’d made a mistake, that these were not temporary flowing gutters but permanent standing puddles that had become naturalized citizens of Whitechapel.

* * *

Spring! The festival of writers, of maidservants in love, and of cats, who climb onto my roof every night and compete with the Yiddish theater choir.

Spring! My soul becomes flooded with feelings of renewal. I want to bathe in the sun’s rays, though Yerukhem advised me to wait until they build the mikveh for the rabbi of North Nothington.

Spring! I want to open the window of my back room to let in the spring air, except that the sash cords are broken and the landlord, may his memory be blotted out, will not fix it.

Spring! I want to drown in light, but just out of spite the electricity has failed.

Spring! I want to hear a new word, a fresh promise, bathed in green and washed with dew. But apart from the Friday night shabbes supper in the Jewish immigrant shelter I have nowhere to go.

* * *

In the manifesto of the London Jewish Mantlemakers’ Union I read that “the whole spring festival belongs to the proletariat!” I make my way to the union hall to see how the class-conscious workers meet their spring. The union hall is empty, dark, and dreary.

“Our members,” I am told, “have become a tiny bit ‘busy.’ People are sweating until late in the evening burning their eyes out by candlelight in order to grab whatever extra work they can. Please, God, when the slack returns, they’ll come back to the union.”

“And then?”

“Then they’ll torment the secretary.”

I bump into the organizer who’s wandering around with a dead flower in his lapel, and I ask him for a fresh word that will excite the Jewish masses. He wrinkles his forehead, thinks a while, and says: “The work of the worker belongs to the workers themselves.”

Scattered over the tables are damp, greasy dominoes, cigarette ends, and fish bones. As I stand there marveling at the spring atmosphere prevailing here, my eye alights on a sunbeam that has managed to sneak in: a long, narrow, bright stripe stretched out languidly across a double six. Good God! A sunbeam in the union, and on a double six! But when I got closer I saw that it was only a noodle, a poor, wretched, lonely orphaned noodle that had slipped off of a spoonful of milky lokshen that had been meant for the secretary’s mouth. What bitter disappointment that a noodle had fooled me.

Looking for something new I went off to the Yiddish theater. I heard there was a new play for spring that had the tang of earth and freshness. The spring plot of the play was this: it was night in a cemetery, and they were digging a new grave (in honor of spring!). They carried out a corpse of a young girl (to symbolize spring!) and said the memorial prayer under a black wedding canopy. Suddenly in the dark night, a bright sun appeared. The stage was drenched with light (spring indeed!), and they said the mourner’s kaddish.

I must confess that I sinned against the corpse in the theater, and I beg her forgiveness because I didn’t have the patience to wait until they’d buried her and instead I ran out in the middle. However, I left her in the hands of good gravediggers.

From there I dropped in on the Jewish courts, and my head started reeling with their spring problems, like shechita politics, the complexities of removing the hind parts of animals for kosher meat, and divorces. And I saw before me congealed salt beef, a supervisor of kosher meat blind in one eye, a yellowing manuscript, a scribe who sniffed tobacco into his runny nose that dripped . . . Truly, the nuances of spring.

* * *

I went off to the shops to find a trace of spring but saw out-of-date cakes, stale matzah, and rotting plums. In one public house, however, I found something new. In the window, among the bottles of liquor, stood a glass vessel in the shape of a pig, and between the eyes of the pig was pinned a small, printed card with the words “Kosher for Passover.”

In the corner of Black Lion Yard, my eyes were drawn toward a Yiddish sign hanging across the width of the alley that said: “Here you can get fresh milk straight from the cow.” My spring fantasy blossomed: a green pasture with cattle freely roaming under the sun, and fresh warm milk directly from the cow’s udder.

“Where is the cow?” I asked the first person I saw walking toward me, a Jew with a bushy beard who was just coming out of the Black Lion Yard Hasidic prayer room with his tallis bag under his arm.

“You mean the creature?” he intoned in the singsong voice of Gemara study. “Go there to the spice shop.”

The spice shop had all sorts of good smells that came from garlic sausage, sour gherkins, sauerkraut, kippers, herrings, petroleum, kindling smeared with tar, and other sorts of spring blooms. A redheaded man with a messy ginger beard in a ragged, quilted jacket with patched elbows was standing there catching herring from a barrel and sorting them into milk and roe, fat and thin.

“A glass of milk from the cow?” I asked with a springlike tone. With his right herring-briny hand he took a glass that was green with mold, dunked it into a dirty pail, and poured it for me, “straight from the cow.”

Shattered from my hunt for spring, I went to a restaurant to cheer myself up, and on the table there were flowers. Flowers, flowers, flowers! The joy of my soul! Fresh roses bought a year ago at Woolworths, made of paper, a real treasure, and white and red lilies sewn out of rags. The “flowers” might even have had a fragrance had it not been for the cheesecake lying nearby.

I ate an ancient cutlet, washed it down with ginger beer, and then went home to bed. There, under the warm featherbed, I felt for the first time that spring was here. However, the doctor who took my pulse told me that no, it was not spring, it was actually the flu.

 

 

“Spring in Whitechapel” by A. M. Kaizer, translated from the Yiddish by Vivi Lachs, first appeared in the 2021 Pakn Treger digital translation issue and is also forthcoming in the collection London Yiddishtown: East-End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story, 1930–1950 (Wayne State University Press).

Vivi Lachs is a historian, teacher, and Yiddish performer. Starting in September 2021, she will be a research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research concerns London’s East End as seen through the creative writing of the community. She explores Yiddish poetry and music hall song in the book Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, 1884–1914, and she translates short stories from the thirties and forties in her forthcoming volume, London Yiddishtown: East End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story, 1930–1950. Selected Works of Katie Brown, A. M. Kaizer, and I. A. Lisky. Lachs has recorded and performs Yiddish songs of London with the band Klezmer Klub and songs from the Yiddish music hall with the band Katsha’nes. She was a Yiddish Book Center translation fellow in 2019.

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