Saturday, November 12, 2011

England -- an "old Jewish quarter" tour in London

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

By now, "old Jewish quarter" tours in places like Prague, Venice and Krakow (or Boskovice, Trebic, even L'viv and beyond) are normal -- and popular -- niche itineraries. Here's a story in the London Jewish Chronicle about an old Jewish quarter tour in London's East End.......a district long the hub of Ashkenazi life in London that is now largely Asian.... but which I am old enough to remember when it was still at least something still of a Jewish district.....visiting the market in Petticoat Lane (and hearing about how Jewish it was) is a vivid memory from childhood.

The tour is offered by London Walks, a wellknown walking tour operation, which provides a video preview of the walk, which it describes as "set amid the alleys and back streets of colourful Spitalfields and Whitechapel ... a tale of synagogues and sweatshops, Sephardim and soup kitchens."

Here's some of what Monica Porter writes in the Jewish Chronicle:
The highlight of the tour [is] a visit to the country's oldest surviving synagogue at Bevis Marks. [...]

Maurice Bitton, the shamash of Bevis Marks, welcomes us into the beautiful building, which dates from 1701. Tucked away in a courtyard, because Jews were not allowed to build on public thoroughfares at the time, it is virtually unchanged since it was built. The great brass hanging candelabra, austere dark oak benches, magnificent ark - everything is original.

Bitton recounts with relish the history of the Sephardi synagogue, and regales us with tales of the congregation's most famous son, the 19th-century philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. He shows us the great man's seat, now roped off. The congregation has shrunk since then, but Bitton says it is starting to grow again, as young Jews move back into the area.

For me, the visit brings back memories. In the 1970s, long before the City was redeveloped, I worked for a magazine whose creaky Dickensian offices overlooked this synagogue. On dusky winter evenings, I peered down through its windows into the warm, candlelit glow, mesmerised by the sound of chanting.

From here we walk north-east to Petticoat Lane (aka Middlesex Street), home of the shmutter trade. This is in Spitalfields, the beginning of the East End proper. Jews fleeing the pogroms in the late 19th century set up their stalls in the market here. Later, Alan Sugar, too, started life as a Petticoat Lane stallholder. Now it is abuzz with Asians, hawking shmutter of their own.

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