Thursday, November 17, 2011

From the Old Jewish Quarter to Little Bengal

When I walk through the streets of London, even in my own quiet residential neighborhood in Wimbledon, I hear people speaking English with many different accents, or conversing in a multitude of other languages, some of which I don't even recognize.  This city is a melting pot of people from all over the world -- some are recent immigrants, while others have been here for many generations.  A few can even trace their ancestral arrival in England back several centuries. 

Monday morning I met up with a group of AWC ladies by the Tower of London for a private London Walks tour of the Old Jewish Quarter.  To be honest, while I do have some Jewish ancestry myself, I didn't even know there WAS an old Jewish quarter in London -- it's not a city known for its large Jewish population, nor has it ever been, as far as I know.  But according to our guide, Harry, there have been Jews in England since the reign of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) -- which is when the Tower itself was built.
Tower of London on a foggy morning
Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290, and it wasn't until the mid 1600's that the Jewish population re-established itself in London.  Most were Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, but later immigrants included Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe.  Several synagogues were built in and near the City of London to support these communities, most of which were destroyed by bombs during WWII.

Our walk took us around the East End of London, which is an area I haven't seen much of, since I live quite a distance away in SW London.  The first stop on our tour was Crutched Friars street, which is only about 2 blocks long and then changes its name to Jewry Street.  A good sign that there was once a large Jewish community here.
Harry explains the street name under the friars.
 Right across the street from where we were standing were two adjacent street signs.
Street names change every few blocks in London!
It was a cold, foggy day -- so much so that we could not even see the top of the iconic "Gherkin" building a few blocks away.
The Gherkin disappears into the fog
There are estimated to be at least 300,000 Jews living in England, but very few of them still live in this neighborhood.  Of course, very few people in general live in this part of London these days -- it's mostly office buildings now.  We visited the sites where the synagogues once stood, which are marked with plaques.
Site of Great Synagogue 1690-1941
Site of first synagogue in London, established by Sephardic Jews
Still standing, on a small side street, is the Bevis Marks synagogue.  Completed in 1701, it is the oldest synagogue in the UK that is still in use.  We willingly paid £4 each to go inside, just as eager to see the interior as to get out of the cold and damp for a little while.  We were not allowed to take photos inside, but you can see what the interior looks like on their web site.  (You may want to turn your computer's speakers down or off first...)
Bevis Marks Synagogue
We learned about the history of the Synagogue and some of its famous sons, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.  Disraeli's father had a falling-out with Bevis Marks when Benjamin was a boy, and had him baptized in the Anglican church -- an act which ultimately lead to Disraeli's successful political career, as Jews were not allowed to become members of Parliament at that time.

When we reluctantly came back outside, the fog had lifted a bit, but it was still quite chilly.
The Gherkin reappears
We continued to Brune St, where we saw this lovely building.  Established in 1854, the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor once served up to 4000 people a night.  It relocated to this building in 1902, where it operated continuously for 90 years until it closed in 1992.  The building fell into disrepair, but has since been fixed up and converted into luxury apartments
Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor
Harry asked if we'd heard of Middlesex street, and then suggested we might know it better as "Petticoat Lane."  A street market has operated here on and off for 400 years.  Because the market is held on Sundays, most of the vendors were originally Jews, who did not have their Sabbath on Sunday.  As new immigrants arrived from South Asia and the Middle East, they were later joined by Muslim vendors, with whom they often formed successful business partnerships.
Petticoat Lane Market
I couldn't resist stopping along the way to take a photo of this barber shop...
Jack the Clipper
As I mentioned, there is no longer a much of a Jewish population in this neighborhood. Today it is home to a large community of immigrants from Bangladesh. Most of the street signs are posted in both English and Bengali.
No cricket!?  No football?!
One of the more well-known streets in this area is Brick Lane, which is lined with an impressive number of curry houses (Indian restaurants).  Harry tipped us off that there are also some good bagel shops at the other end of the street.  Now I know where to go if I'm craving curry and bagels!
Brick Lane/ "Banglatown"
Brick Lane gate
Our tour ended near the Whitechapel Gallery, where Harry pointed out a clothing store called Albert's that was once the offices of a Jewish newspaper.  The masthead logo can still be seen above the door.

At this point, we were all cold, tired, and hungry, so we made a beeline back up Brick Lane to an Indian restaurant that Harry had recommended.  The service was a little spotty and we were the ONLY people in the restaurant, but it was nice and warm inside and the food was pretty good.  I suppose when there are so many similar restaurants to choose from, it's unlikely that any of them would be crowded on a Monday afternoon, and this one was probably one of the pricier options.  Still, it was a nice ending to our walking tour of the Old Jewish Quarter, which is now Banglatown.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reliving our walk through your eyes and words. Hope we meet up for another walk soon!


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