Sadie was a Lady: Prostitution in Yiddish Song

Der feter iz geshtanen in di rogn
Un di bobe a hendlerke in gas
Eyn brider zitst in ostrogn
Un di shvester tra-la-la-la-la

My uncle stands on street corners
My grandmother does business on the street
One brother sits in prison
And my sister tra-la-la-la-la

Sung by the Barry Sisters, and to audience guffaws at the mention of prostitution, ‘Ketzele Baroiges’ is a popular song from Eastern Europe. But I am English, a Yiddish folk singer recently turned London Yiddish song detective, and in scouring for Yiddish songs that make mention of London people, places and experiences, the subject of prostitution has come up repeatedly. Sometimes, as in ‘Ketzele Baroiges’, it is a comic aside but in other cases it describes a social reality, reflecting Jewish history in London.

After Tsar Nicholas II’s assassination in 1881, life for Jews in the Pale of Settlement became desperate. Terrorised by waves of pogroms and new legislation that prohibited them from living in the countryside, thousands left the shtetl for the city where they tried to find work. The only option was factory work, but Jews were largely unskilled in factory technologies, anti-Semitic factory owners were reluctant to employ them and many religious Jews could not combine factory hours with religious observance. Many chose to leave Eastern Europe and seek a better life in England and America.

On arrival in England, the majority of immigrants headed for the East End of London. There are no reliable figures, but at its peak in around 1915, this square mile housed up to 250,000 Jews. Not for nothing was it called the Jewish East End: whole streets were Jewish markets, there were Yiddish theatres and synagogues on every other street corner and an abundance of Yiddish newspapers and magazines. The existing Jewish community was concerned about the record influx of poor immigrants and how it would affect their standing in British society. The Rothschilds and other wealthy Jewish families built sanitary tenement blocks for hundreds of Jewish families, but many could not afford the high rents and were forced into renting only part of a room. Competition for jobs was tough and workers were poorly paid for long hours of hard, often dangerous work.

Morris Winchevsky’s song Di Dray Shvester is the story of three sisters who probably lived in the East End but worked in the West End, in Leicester Square:

Di yingster farkoyft dortn blumen

Di eltere, bendlekh tzi shikh

In speyt in der nakht tut zi kumen

Di drite vus handlt mit zikh

The youngest sold flowers, the next shoelaces and the eldest herself. The lyrics continue, ‘The younger sisters don’t hate the oldest sister, they hate di velt (the world) and di shtot, (the town) and di gas, (the street). Late at night when they come home, the shoelaces and flowers are mixed with their tears’.  Morris Winchevsky, a political activist was born in Lithuania in 1856. A socialist and atheist, he moved to Whitechapel where he lived for five years and co-founded the first Yiddish socialist newspaper, Dos Poylishe Yidl. According to Bill Fishman in East End Jewish Radicals:

Winchevsky’s distinctive style may be discerned throughout, with its regular alternating sweep from pathos to bitter irony in the traditional patois of the shtetl. He and his co-writers present the reader with a many-sided picture of immigrant life in the 1880s. Features included local, national and world news with political analysis and commentary; correspondence from the other great Jewish centre in Leeds and weekly dramatic criticism of the spiel at the Yiddish theatre. But above all was a didactic appraisal of the harsh conditions suffered by Jews, with practical suggestions for their amelioration.

The mass movement of Jews enabled Jewish criminals to take advantage of international links and develop, within an already established ‘white slave trade’, a trade in Jewish women. Conditions in Eastern Europe made this easy; waves of emigration had created a dearth of young men, leaving families open to seemingly suitable suitors.  Jewish traffickers would procure women under the pretext of marriage (often a secret stille khuppe that wouldn’t hold up in a court of law), offering girls greater economic ease and a better life in London (or the US, South America, and South Africa). Once there they would be sold to brothels or forced into prostitution, powerless to help themselves. They were easy victims: often from religious homes, they were innocent of worldly matters and unable to speak English.

The trafficking didn’t only take place abroad.  Fishman describes the men ready at the dockside to take advantage of unaccompanied young women:

…young men were employed to pick up lonely girls embarking at the dockside and inveigle them to a place of refuge, which soon revealed itself as a brothel …Virginity being regarded as sacrosanct before marriage, the fallen woman could find no redemption but to sink deeper into the morass of prostitution.

Jewish trafficking was an embarrassment to the Jewish community who wanted to keep it out of the media, particularly concerned it would be seized upon by anti-Semites (as indeed it was by journalist and agitator Arnold White, among others). The situation, however, was made public by organisations set up to protect and support the women such as The Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women (JAPGW). Set up in 1885 by women from leading London Jewish families, JAPGW set out to protect women and reduce the trade by publicising its existence and making communities aware of the dangers. Lloyd Gartner writes that as early as 1890 there were notices printed in Jewish newspapers on the continent ‘warning young girls from leaving their homes by the advice of strangers or under the care of strangers’. The JAPGW made their presence felt at the dockside, boarding ships to find women travelling alone or with male non-family members.  They would escort women to their addresses, and if these addresses were suspicious, they would offer protection. Criminologist Paul Knepper credits the JAPGW as ‘the most visible Jewish anti-crime organisation in Great Britain and the model for initiatives in Jewish communities across the world’.

Although the East End was London’s largest Jewish community, the sisters in Winchevsky’s song go to the West End to work. Soho, a notorious area for prostitution, was a wealthier area with businessmen and foreign visitors. Writer Bernard Kops, in his memoir The World is a Wedding, recalls the kindness of his neighbour in the 1930s:

A woman who lived nearby sometimes brought us in potatoes. She worked ‘Up West’ my mother told me —‘Up West’ was that fabulous world beyond, our Eldorado. It was only years later that I guessed what sort of work the woman did — for who in the buildings could afford to give their neighbours potatoes in those days?

I learned Dray Shvester at London Klezfest in 2006 from Karsten Troyke, a charismatic German Yiddish folk singer who found the song on a 1961 recording by the Buenos Aires Yiddish actress Cipe Lincovsky. I later learned from Cipe that Helene Weigel (widow of Bertolt Brecht and then director of his theatre) gave her the lyrics. According to Weigel, Brecht loved the song because the sisters do not judge their sister but blame society for forcing her into prostitution.

According to the elderly Jewish Londoners I interviewed, girls were vulnerable up until as late as the 1940s and warned not to enter the Jewish gown shops in Oxford Street, as they could ‘take you into the back room and sell you to the white slave trade.’ Not all Jewish East End prostitution was a result of white slave trafficking. There were times when wome became prostitutes of their own volition, supplementing their tiny incomes when necessary. Historian Lara Marks has recounted how frequently a Jewish woman would follow her husband to London only to find he had disappeared or started a new family, leaving her an agunah, a deserted wife, unable to get the divorce needed by Jewish law as it had to be given by the husband. The Jewish charities would pay to track down the husband, but not to support the wife. Whichever way Jewish women turned, they met with discrimination.  As they lacked charitable support and were faced with a menial existence in the labour market, prostitution could seem an attractive alternative. German Jewish feminist movement, the Judischer Frauenbund, in 1904, considered prostitution as a non-choice, akin to the ‘voluntary-ness’ of a young foreign legionnaire who had no idea what he was getting himself into. Pappenheim became an outspoken activist in the fight against the white slave trade. Historian Marion Kaplan describes the attitude of the Judischer Frauenbund to the enslaved women, whether enslaved by pimps or by poverty.

She writes:

It was not unusual for Jewish feminists to view prostitutes as white slaves even if no traffickers were implicated. One Judischer Frauenbund member pointed to inadequate housing or to poverty as ‘the real trafficker’.

But comic songwriters often bypassed reality, turning instead to escapism and humour. The song Victoria Park is set in a park just north of the East End dubbed the ‘lungs of London’ when it opened in 1850. In his famous novel ‘Children of the Ghetto’, Israel Zangwill describes it as ‘the park to the ghetto’ where Eastenders would flock on shabbes and holidays. The song portrays an assortment of curiouys characters hanging around the park. Yudke and Rachel, he with one shoe and she with one sock, immigrants looking for a job, a thick necked porter, red Benny and poxy Fanny. And amongst these characters we have a rousing chorus of:

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Dort geyt Khay’ite a moyd fun Lite / Zi iz di drite, zi voynt in City.

There goes Khayite from Lithuania, she is the third, lives in the City.

This has double meanings similar to Kops’ ‘Up West’, and when Bertha Jackson sang this song, she interpreted this line as a euphemism for working as a prostitute. Jackson, who was born in Liverpool in 1888, learned the song at the age of eight from her uncle, a travelling salesman. Eighty-two years later, Derek Reid, poet and folklorist, recorded her singing the song, which must date back to some time before 1897. To underline this point, the melody of the chorus is is a famous square dance called Little Redwing, whose lyrics are coarse, graphic and misogynist.

An old ex-Eastender friend chanted to me, at full speed, as if he was davening, the words to the comic song, Sadie iz a Lady. It builds an idyllic picture of shtetl life and then relocates to East Stepney:

East Stepney, East Stepney, vu di libe iz tzebrent Un yeder Sadie iz a lady, un yeder Sam a gent East Stepney, East Stepney where love has burned, and every Sadie is a lady and every Sam a gent.

The line ‘Sadie is a lady and Sam a gent’, implies an upward mobility, but the rhyme coming after the first line exposes it as another coy allusion to prostitution, with the double entendre adding the comic twist. The rhyme ‘Sadie’ and ‘Lady’ was often used in songs such as Mayn Fair Sadie (a parody of ‘My Fair Lady’) and Johnny Bond’s 1961 country song, Sadie was the Lady. There is Barbara Streisand’s 1964 Sadie, Married Lady from the musical ‘Funny Girl’. John Farnham in 1967 sang Sadie Cleaning Lady (with dancing cleaning girls, rabbit tails and mini-aprons). But most important, with film versions in 1932 and 1953, is the 1930 Somerset Maugham story of a prostitute, Sadie Thompson.  The name Sadie, popular in the East End, sometimes a nickname for Sarah, had associations for Eastenders I interviewed, including a song sung to me by Ruth:

Sadie was a lady, and all the money was spent. She spent

it here, she spent it there…

A ‘Sadie’ was described as a ‘yachne’, a ‘busybody’, a ‘right Jewish girl’, an ‘outcast woman’, a ‘woman going off the rails’. Solly, a 95-year-old ex-tailor, explained that ‘Sadie’ was used as a nickname for a fellinghand, the lowest woman in the clothing industry who would sew buttonholes.  These songs reveal a hidden social history, one missing from the more formal accounts of East End Jewish life. Through their informal, often humourous, descriptions, these songs confer a lost dignity on their subjects while shining a light into the darker recesses of Jewish life in the East End. Yiddish songs and Jewish prostitution may seem unlikely bedfellows. Yet through their wry humour, intense sadness, and anger, these songs brought Jewish audiences face to face with their own hardship in a typically bittersweet celebration.


Bristow, Edward . J. Prostitution and Prejudice: Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1870 – 1939. (1982) Clarendon, Oxford Fishman, William J. East End Jewish Radicals 1875 – 1914.  (1975) London: Duckworth.

Gartner, Lloyd P. Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish International Traffic in Prostitution, 1885–1914 in Association of Jewish Studies Review (1982), 7 : 129-178 Cambridge University Press Kaplan, Marion. Prostitution, Morality Crusades and Feminism:

German-Jewish Feminists and the Campaign Against White Slavery in Women’s Studies International Forum (1982)

Knepper, Paul. British Jews and the Racialisation of Crime in the Age of Empire in The British Journal of Criminology (2007), 47(1): 61-79.

Kops, Bernard. The World is a Wedding. From By the Waters of Whitechapel (2006)

Marks, Lara, ‘Race, Class and Gender: The Experience of Jewish Prostitutes and Other Jewish Women in the East End of London at the Turn of the Century’, in Women, Migration and Empire, ed. Joan Grant (1996) 31-50 Trentham books Zangwill, Israel. 1892 Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People.

Klezmer Klub’s CD ‘Whitechapel, mayn Vaytshepl – Yiddish songs of London’

Vivi Lachs is the singer with the band Klezmer Klub. She is researching Yiddish songs of London and the social histories they contain.  She gives illustrated talks, concerts and also leads Klezmer dancing at simchas. She studies Yiddish and Her real job is working in education in Hackney.

Anyone knowing a Yiddish song about any aspect of London or England, however small, please email

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