Jewish Neighborhoods: London

Yiddish culture arrived in London in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when thousands of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews began settling in the already-established Jewish neighborhood in the East End, between Spitalfields and Whitechapel. The East End was an immigrant hub and richly multicultural area where Jews and non-Jews lived side by side. Yiddish-speaking Jews in London faced growing pressures to acculturate to English norms—even some Jewish schools forbade Yiddish—but despite these pressures, Yiddish culture flourished.

Yiddish could be heard every weekday across Wentworth Street and its surrounding areas at a provisions market known as The Lane. On Sundays, Jewish tradespeople gathered to sell their goods at the famous Petticoat Lane market on Middlesex Street. Arts and culture thrived with the establishment of Yiddish theaters, Jewish bookshops, kosher eateries, and the publication of Yiddish newspapers such as Di tsayt (The Times), the socialist Der poylisher yidl (The Little Polish Jew), and the anarchist Arbeter fraynd (Worker’s Friend). In 1911, the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) established The Worker’s Circle Friendly Society, a socialist-minded mutual aid society. It expanded in 1924 to Circle House, which housed a Yiddish library and shule (secular school) that hosted lectures and cultural events. By 1935, Circle House had over 2,700 members.

In 1938, London Yiddish speakers established Der yidisher kultur-gezelshaft (Yiddish Culture Association), and in 1943 the Association of Jewish Journalists and Authors opened Folk House, which hosted a variety of cultural activities. On Saturdays, while some observed Shabbos, other Yiddish speakers gathered for a literary salon run by Di fraynt fun yiddish loshn (Friends of the Yiddish language), an organization founded by Yiddish poet Avrom Nokhem Stencl. A refugee from Germany who fled in 1936 after being arrested by the Gestapo, Stencl edited the literary journal Loshn un lebn (Language and Life) into the 1980s and became known as the Bard of Whitechapel.

World War II severely impacted the vibrant Yiddish world of the East End. The Blitz, a German bombing campaign in 1940 and 1941, eliminated many Yiddish spaces, including Circle House, and displaced many Jewish residents after their homes and shops were destroyed. In London, as throughout the Diaspora, the impact of the war and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 pushed many to embrace Hebrew as the language of a Jewish future.

Nonetheless, Yiddish in London never disappeared, and it has begun to re-emerge with more vitality over the past decades. Di fraynt fun yiddish, a staple of the London Yiddish community, continued its activities until its last meeting in 2011. Today, universities such as University College London and SOAS offer Yiddish language, culture, and history courses, while the Yiddish Open Mic Café, founded in 2018 by Steve Ogin, Vivi Lachs, and Rachel Weston, offers a space for Yiddish song, poetry, storytelling, games, and conversation. The Yiddish Café Trust, an umbrella organization, runs the annual Yiddish Sof-Vokh (an immersive weekend-long event) and, in association with the JW3 Jewish Community Centre, is developing an annual Yiddish theater festival.  Other organizations and activities include the grassroots Yiddish House, which organizes meetings and events centered around Yiddish language and culture; The Golden Peacock, run by SOAS’s Jewish Music Institute, which offers a week of Yiddish song learning and performance; and The Great Yiddish Parade, a marching band that plays socialist anthems written in the 1880s by Morris Winchevsky for London’s strikes and demonstrations. The latter appears at events, festivals, and demonstrations to celebrate Yiddish culture in the Victorian era and inspire activism in the present. Yiddish can also be heard on the streets, particularly in North London among ultra-Orthodox families. While Yiddish is not centered in a particular neighborhood or organization as it was a century ago, it continues to find a home among Jewish communities in London.

Dray shvester” (“Three Sisters”): A Yiddish Song that Reveals History

Vivi Lachs, a social and cultural historian, performer, and Yiddishist, shares how she learned the Yiddish song “Dray shvester” (“Three Sisters”) and what it reveals about societal injustice in London. Vivi sings a portion of the song and explains how folk songs like this offer an important lens through which to understand history.

Songs for the Shul Klaper: Musical Parallels between East London and Eastern Europe

London-based singer Rachel Weston explains how she works with Yiddish songs to reveal parallels between Jewish life in the East End of London and Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Rachel weaves together two folk songs about shul klapers, who would go around the shtetl reminding people to wake up for morning prayers.

East Hackney—Memories from the 1980s

Francesca Ter-Berg, a cellist who specializes in klezmer music, shares a brief history of the London borough of Hackney. She describes its working-class market culture, cultural diversity, and strong queer Jewish presence in the 1980s.

Ot Azoy: One Week of Intensive Yiddish

London-based Yiddish teacher Helen (Khayele) Beer describes what a week looks like at the Ot Azoy summer Yiddish course in London.

Khayele Beer, Beloved Teacher and Scholar

Lily Kahn, a linguist and professor at University College London, describes her beloved Yiddish teacher Helen (Khayele) Beer. She notes the tremendous influence Helen had on her personal Yiddish trajectory as well as on the broader Yiddish community in London and around the world.

Curating an Exhibit on Yiddish Theater in London

David Mazower, Yiddish Book Center bibliographer and former BBC journalist, explains the significance of the London Jewish Museum as a social history project highlighting London’s Jewish immigrant heritage. He shares that curating an exhibit on Yiddish theater for the newly founded London Jewish Museum sparked his interest in Yiddish culture more broadly.

Cover Image is a poster from the London Yiddish People's Theater advertising a performance from American Yiddish actor Isidore Lipinsky, courtesy of Judy Bressler.