London Yiddishtown

Competing cantors for a synagogue position in London, disaffected barmitzvah boys struggling to learn theirmaftir, and pompous benefactors at the opening of an East-End community kitchen. These are scenes from Yiddish stories written in the 1930s about synagogue and community politics. You may not find anything to relate to here – or maybe you will…

Arnold (Arye Myer) Kaizer was a macher in the Jewish world of the 30s and 40s. He worked for the Association of Jewish Relief Agencies, was secretary of the Association of Yiddish Authors and Journalists and a very funny sketch writer for Di Tsayt (The Times). He was a regular shul-goer, community activist and passionate Yiddishist. He was on committees and societies, noticing the funny side of life at a difficult time. A selection of his stories are translated for the first time in London Yiddishtown: East End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story, 1930-1950.

In the story “Choosing Cantors;” “the cantors come from the four corners of the earth to audition. As you walk past a synagogue, you hear someone inside trilling, modulating, embellishing with ornaments, performing vocal tricks, and penetrating the highest echelons of heaven.” The community is enthused by cantors with secondary skills: “We’ve already had a doctor-cantor, a professor-cantor, a pharmacist-cantor, an engineer-cantor, and even a comedian-cantor. Oh, and was he a joker! The congregation really liked him. He put a kind of clowning into the prayers, with strange affectations and facial expressions. When he blessed the new moon, people were rolling about with laughter.” However, he wasn’t chosen because the doctor cantor may be able to help if there was too much of a scrum parading with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah and someone got injured. But he wasn’t chosen because…

In the story Roni akore and the dressmaker, we have a face-off encounter between frum orthodoxy and three-times-a-year upwardly mobile Jews. The Hasidic melamed tries to find the shortest possible maftir for the English boys, and the fashion conscious parents need to ensure the dressmaker will produce the goods on time…

In the story “Where it Bubbles,” we meet the benefactors of a new kosher kitchen providing subsidised meals for workers. At the opening event, with pompous one-upmanship, one benefactor after another describes their favourite meals: “One chap, the proprietor of a workshop with a pregnant-looking potbelly, squat and round as a bathtub, wanted to know what sort of soup they would be serving in the kitchen.“I myself,” he proudly informed me, “like an international soup. What I mean is a barley soup with short lokshn, kliskes, farfl, beans, small shallots, carrots, giblets, veal bones, and any other bones with meat on them. I want to know if they give that sort of international soup or just a simple broth made solely from chicken.” And for the main course…

And where is Kaizer? The Jewish Chronicle online archive reported the 3 May 1934 opening of a Jewish communal restaurant in Whitechapel. And after searching the British Library archive of Yiddish newspapers for a clue, ah, there he was. A report from 1 June 1934 in Di tsayt described the restaurant’s two committees: an organisational and a cultural: and there at the end of the list of committee members is our man, insider macher and writer A M Kaizer.

London Yiddishtown has 27 stories from three writers. Expect a fascinating peephole into East End immigrant life, political, satirical and very funny. Author Michael Rosen says: “What a treat. A book that brings to life exactly where and how my parents lived. For anyone, though, following the people who came out of Eastern Europe and created Yiddishtowns in London, Manchester, New York, and elsewhere, this is a wonderfully detailed, scholarly, and human read.”


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IN PERSON at a whopping 36% discount: JW3 LONDON YIDDISHTOWN book launch on Thursday 9 December 7.30pm. An evening with broadcaster Alan Dein, Vivi Lachs and guests – with conversation, story readings and East End music. £10 in person and free on zoom.


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