This interdisciplinary research project brings together a team of historians and literary scholars working in English and Yiddish, and two archives, the Jewish Museum London and the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive to explore, through new sources and approaches, the multi-relational character of Jewish immigrant culture in London.
Around 150,000 Jews migrated to Britain in the late Victorian period, the majority settling in east London. Their story has largely been written from sources produced by the leaders of the established Anglo-Jewish community, who regarded immigrant Jews as profoundly different from them – poor, pious and politically radical – and who had little understanding of the East End environment where Jewish immigrants settled. However, this perspective has limited our understanding of Jewish culture and social change in modern London.
This project seeks instead to attend to the voices of working-class and lower middle-class East End Jews. Crucially, this entails study of the Yiddish language culture of Jewish immigrants, which flourished in east London in the early twentieth century and subsequently became a formative influence on Jewish culture after World War II. The project analyses a body of rarely used sources in Yiddish and English-language popular culture, drawing on literature, periodicals, theatre, songs, and oral history recordings.
Contesting the still dominant view of Yiddish-speaking immigrants as pliable subjects moulded by philanthropy and schooling, our study examines the forms of agency and creativity exerted in the process of acculturation; and instead of assuming that Jewish immigrant culture in the East End was inward- and backward-looking, we approach it as a mobile, hybrid and transnational phenomenon. For immigrants and their children, the East End was experienced not as a ghetto but through relationships to other social and cultural spaces: to the West End Jewish world but also to European or north American centres of Jewish culture, to Cockney London and to other immigrant communities.
Public events linked to the project will take place at the Jewish Museum and Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive from autumn 2022. Visit the project website.
Project Team: Nadia Valman, Queen Mary University of London (Principal Investigator); David Feldman, Director, Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (Co-Investigator); Vivi Lachs, Research Fellow and historian of the Jewish East; Katy Pettit, historian of the East End.
The project is funded by UK Research and Innovation (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and runs 2021–2023.