Folksong and its relatives, frequently popular responses to contemporary events, can offer fascinating insights into the lives of their composers and audiences. Vivi Lachs has unearthed and examined Yiddish songs and poetry written in London around the turn of the 20th century by members of the wave of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the wake of the pogroms and economic uncertainty set in motion by the antisemitic May Laws of Tsar Alexander III.
Once in London, many were as good as enslaved in the cruel sweatshop system. They found little sympathy or support among established members of Anglo-Jewry, who saw their Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European co-religionists as an embarrassment, to be Anglicised and de-Yiddishised. Moses Angel, the head teacher of the Jewish Free School, “banned the speaking of Yiddish, and the school taught mainly secular subjects” (Yiddish only began to be taken seriously as a literary language in the late 19th century, with the encouragement of the Jewish Labour Bund, founded in Vilna in 1897). Meanwhile, the Jewish Chronicle regularly campaigned against immigrant prayer houses. In the Yiddish song and verse of the immigrants, we learn of their condition and response to it. The Chief Rabbi is referred to as “the West End goy”. He, in turn, regarded the Yiddish theatre as a “synagogue for sin and apostasy”. In the poem “Di Reformer”, an attack on the reform movement (established in England in 1842), the writer mocks the cantor singing with organ accompaniment and the silent decorum of the congregation. In Lachs’s superbly researched book, brim full of original material, we see how the fault-lines of the English Jewish community were established right at the outset.
Lachs emphasises the transnational aspect of much of the material. The experience of London Jewish immigrants was not dissimilar to that of their New York counterparts. Arn Neger’s “Freg keyn karshanes, es iz England” (Don’t ask silly questions, this is England) anticipates Alexander Olshanestky’s better known “Vot ken you makh? Es iz Amerike!” (What can you do? This is America!), while the songs of the socialist Morris Winchevsky, who spent fifteen years in London after arriving there in 1879 and was known as the zeyde (grandfather) of the sweatshop poets, educated and revolutionised tens of thousands of Jewish workers. According to the delightfully, if improbably, named A. Litvak, his songs were sung in the basements of Tsarist prisons where people “got hope and comfort from them”.
Other songs and verse relate more specifically to local issues. In “Fri ov Tshardzh” (note the delightful Yiddishisation of the English, a common feature of the genre), “the lodger gets the nicest room and finest bed, and when the husband leaves the house to buy the lodger some wine, the wife gets her ‘tiddle idl lomtom’/ totally free of charge.” The lodger cuckolds a husband, slyly implying that man loses his potency through immigration. He works all hours in a sweatshop, but for such a low wage that he cannot support his family or pay the rent without the additional financial help from taking in a lodger. Away from the stifling atmosphere of the shtetl, forced to work on Sabbath, other Jews start to question the very foundations of their faith:
Me gloybt az dray mit dray iz zibn…
Kol-zman dos shteyt nor vu geshribn
(They believe that three and three is seven… as
long as it is written somewhere in the Scriptures.)
Ultimately, as Lachs avers, “The success of the anglicisation process meant not only the loss of a Yiddish popular culture in London but also a loss of access to that culture as historical evidence.” Though her occasionally stilted prose betrays the book’s origins as a PhD thesis, Lachs has performed an important service, by dragging the colourful life of the first English Ashkhenazi Jews out of obscurity, kicking, singing and dancing.