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Jewish Whitechapel in London – echoes and lessons

On the eastern edge of the city of London lies Whitechapel. Since 1656 and the resettlement of Jews in the United Kingdom this has had a Jewish presence. I lead groups walking around the area and each walk is different and everyone participating brings a story. About a relation, about something they’ve heard or a work of art, or where to get the best bagel or curry.

There are so many lenses through which Whitechapel can be viewed. Next week we’re walking round with a group to look at the artistic history and synagogues. We’ll discuss the war poet Isaac Rosenberg and how he and others such as Jacob Bronowski studied at the cultural outpost – the Whitechapel library. We’ll walk through the streets and discuss Jack London’s description of the terrible poverty and Arnold Wesker’s plays and the works of Israel Zangwill such as “The Children of the Ghetto”. And we’ll look at the birthplace of Chaim Weintrop who became better known as the massively popular entertainer Bud Flanagan. And we’ll look at Naomi Blake’s sculpture “Sanctuary”. We’ll visit the beautifully preserved home of Mark Gertler.

When we go to look at the original Sephardi synagogue site and then the grand Bevis Mark and the shabby but wonderful Ashkenazi Dutch shul of Sandys Row, these will be a faint echo of the hundred of so synagogues which were in the area 120 years ago. The churches in the area – St Botolphs and Christ Church both have strong Jewish connections and the very large Mosque on Brick Lane occupies the space of a former Orthodox synagogue.

Whilst this all sounds like we’re digging in the past, the visible clues and buildings are still there for many of these sites. The well preserved Jewish Soup Kitchen for the Poor on Brune Street and the Rothschild Arch which remains from the social housing project are reminders of the grinding poverty in which the Jewish poor lived in Whitechapel and are very much still there.

The Jewish history is woven into the streets of the 300 year old buildings, originally built for the Huguenots, in Fournier and Princelet Street. Waves of immigration into the area have come from Ireland, Jewish Eastern Europe, the Huguenot (Protestant French/Dutch community), Bangladesh, Somalia and other corners of the planet.

What’s been created is an amazing tapestry. The Jewish history is a very rich thread through this tapestry. It’s surrounded by other people’s stories and incredible street art which develops each week.

This dazzling area built on Roman ruins always surprises. The resonance of the past is strong and it has many lessons for us to learn about resilience, collaboration in the future. Each week we discover new remarkable things and more connections. It’s a living history in which the Jewish history has a pivotal role.

About the Author
Sam Jacobs is a qualified City of London guide and a specialist in the Jewish history of the City of London and Whitechapel and leads regular walks in the area. In the past he was a Jewish student and Jewish Labour leader in the UK and Europe. He has been in high tech for 40 years and is currently a trustee of two major UK charities on identity and integration.
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