Nov 04, 2019
Vivi Lachs, Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1883-1914. (Wayne State University Press, 2018), $32.99
It is a well-worn cliché that in polite company, one must never discuss politics, sex, and religion, a maxim that goes to the very core of the legendary British culture of politeness and repression. The message clearly did not get through to the roughly 100,000 to 120,000 Eastern European Jewish immigrants that arrived in London in the decades of mass emigration from Czarist Russia. As Vivi Lachs demonstrates in her delightful new study, Jewish immigrants in the East End of London were more likely to match their English working-class counterparts for vulgarity and social critique than they were to mirror their Anglo co-religionists. Politics, sex, and religion are at the heart of this book, just as they were at the heart of the lives of the immigrants negotiating a radically different culture. Many of these migrants, Lachs shows, were navigating an entirely new culture and had to reimagine what it meant to be Jewish without the structures that previously governed their daily lives.
To be sure, such tensions had existed in Eastern Europe, but in migration, the question of how to proceed as Jews in a modernizing world came to the fore. And the everyday problems around economics, sexuality, and religion were front and center. This is perhaps not surprising: the literature on Jewish immigration and its impact is well-established, particularly when one turns to the United States. And although Lachs brings something unprecedented in the depth of her study of Yiddish London, what is truly pathbreaking here is the source material that informs her analysis: Yiddish rhyming couplets performed and published around the neighborhood of Whitechapel in London’s east. It is these sources, traditionally eschewed as shund, or trashy popular culture, that Lachs takes extremely seriously in trying to understand the everyday lives of London’s immigrant Jews and how they reacted specifically to their encounter with England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In delving into these sources—song sheets, songbooks, newspapers, and reports from London’s music halls—Lachs manages to paint a compelling picture of life among immigrant Jews and how they understood their rapidly evolving situation. As we encounter more and more song lyrics and poetry, it becomes ever clearer that the life the immigrants left behind was no longer possible, and they faced a difficult time adapting to English mores. This was true in terms of their working lives, of their marriages and relationships, and, crucially, in terms of how they performed their Judaism. The lyrics are often funny, poignant, and occasionally heartbreaking, and Lachs’s text is punctuated by excerpts of verses in transliteration in which the reader can delight.
Organized into sections revolving around those central themes, Lachs’s work shows deft skill in bringing together the sensibilities of a range of approaches, and brings into conversation different subfields and emerging trends within Jewish Studies. This book will be fascinating for those writing about Jews and immigration, political life, popular culture, literature and poetry, sex and sexuality, Yiddish theatre, British Jewry, religious transformations, and the intersections between all of the above.
Lachs reinforces an increasingly important trend in Jewish studies, which takes a transnational approach to the study of Jews’ lives and ideas. In this approach, historians highlight Jews’ attachments across borders, particularly Jewish immigrants, and show the multifarious ways that these immigrants negotiate their overlapping—and occasionally clashing—cultural, linguistic, geographic, and political attachments. Whether that is through their involvement in landsmanshaftn or in maintaining their language and establishing cultural institutions that connect them to their real or mythical homeland, Jewish immigrants in the twentieth century have proven to be an excellent case study to show the intricacies of these cross-border connections, and how these manifest in new cultural production.
Two studies are exemplary here: Rebecca Kobrin’s work on the Bialystok Jewish diaspora was a crucial step towards recognizing that immigration and acculturation were not linear processes, and that the attachments that Jewish immigrants held were rooted in complicated ideas about home and kinship. 1 1 Rebecca Kobrin, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010). In his study on Yiddish socialism in the United States, Tony Michels flipped the conventional wisdom about the relationship between socialism in Europe and the United States on its head, showing that the interchange between ideas, tactics, and literature moved in both directions. He argued that although the scholarship on modern Jewish politics tends to locate the rise of Jewish radicalism in Czarist Russia, it was in fact born from a dynamic interplay between immigrants to the United States and socialists in the home country. 2 2 Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009).
Lachs adds further layers of nuance to these ideas, adding new nodes to the multidirectional network that Michels highlighted. The transnational socialist Yiddish culture of the turn of the century had many stops along the way that influenced its character. Lachs mines a rich collection of socialist Yiddish song and verse from London and makes it clear that contact with the English labor movement was instrumental in shaping the socialist ideas and culture that immigrants writers and artists would export back to mainland Europe and onwards to the US.
These socialists lie at the center of this book, with the poet Morris Winchevsky taking center stage as the most important figure in Yiddish London from his arrival in 1878 until his migration to the United States in 1894. A prolific poet and editor, and known to many as the zeyde of sweatshop poets, his writing was a call to action for Jewish workers to rise up and struggle alongside the English working class against capitalism. Although widely criticized by literary critics who claimed that his poetry lacked feeling and was too simple and “childish,” Winchevsky was single-minded in his goal to bring socialism to Jewish workers. He was unapologetic that his poetry was a form of activism, devised to be accessible, with aesthetics a secondary consideration. This is part of the main thrust of Lachs’s book, which argues that popular culture is something we ought to take seriously, something which has as much to tell us about the ways Jews lived, thought, and felt as culture seen as more literary.
Lachs demonstrates that these poems were part of a transnational world of Yiddish socialist culture. The poems of Winchevsky found their way back to continental Europe and to the United States, with local references adapted or erased to highlight their universality. The immigrant Jews of Whitechapel were able to develop a Yiddish-speaking socialism that was part of the dynamic global movement and that responded to local English political life.
A major tension that runs through this book revolves around the relations between the acculturated Anglo-Jewish establishment and the immigrant Jewish masses. Like in other places, the Anglo Jews saw the Eastern European Jews as threatening what they considered their well-earned acceptance and comfort in British society. Many of the immigrants were likewise wary of their co-religionists, who they perceived as far too assimilated, too pompous, and even too Christianized. Orthodox Judaism in England was far too removed from what the immigrants knew, their communal structures too foreign. A number of the poems deal directly with this tension, criticizing English Jewish institutions as not principally concerned with alleviating the lot of poor Jews and instead with lining their own pockets. Socialist poets were particularly incensed at the English religious establishment and regularly penned poems satirizing rabbinic authority.
At the same time, many of the poets were critical of the immigrants themselves. They criticized what they saw as the immigrants’ lack of morality, their corruption, and their lack of class consciousness. Winchevsky’s poems often urged workers to improve themselves and to see work as ennobling. He took aim at the gambling habits of workers that they had adopted from their English counterparts, and in one poem he derides workers for their gullibility in falling for the empty electoral promises of British politicians:
Der liberale zogt, dzhek muz im
Helfn, vayl er iz zayn fraynd.
Der konservator zogt: mayn buzem
Efnt zikh far dzhekn haynt.
Baym sheynker kumt oys, dzhek iz zayner
Un er lozt im nit avek.
Des vaser-mentsh shrayt: ikh bin dayner
Un du mayner, liber dzhek!
Der git im tey, der git a shnepsl
Yener firt im in karetn;
Primroz-damen kushn, gletn;
Un dzhek—er shtimt far zey, dem shepsl
The liberal says, Jack must help him
Because he is his friend.
The Conservative says: My heart
Opens to Jack to today.
The publican contends that Jack is his
And will not let him go.
The teetotaler shouts: I am yours
And you are mine, dear Jack!
One gives him tea, another gives him a drink
Someone else leads him in carriages;
The primrose-women kiss, caress;
And Jack – he votes for them, the sheep (118).
Winchevsky’s boldness in criticizing the worker is somewhat surprising given his stated commitment to enlightening the worker.
Many of the poems that Lachs brings us are punctuated by a deep, often sardonic, sense of humor. A good number were performed in music halls: raucous, working class spaces where boundaries were circumvented and taboos contravened. They did not shy away from difficult topics like domestic violence, prostitution and the white slave trade, and abandoned wives, and often tackled them with vicious wit.
Scholars of Jewish literature and culture are increasingly recognizing humor as a prevalent yet under researched component of modern Jewish culture. 3 3 See, for example, Ruth Wisse, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Jeremy Dauber, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (New York: Norton, 2017); Eli Lederhendler and Gabriel N. Finder, eds., A Club of Their Own: Jewish Humorists and the Contemporary World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Lawrence J. Epstein, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians (Oxford: Public Affairs, 2001); and Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990). The late nineteenth century in particular saw the advent of a new tradition of Jewish humor in Ashkenazi Jewish culture. These developments were, roughly speaking, rooted in the late medieval traditions of the badkhn, the purimshpil, and Yiddish folktales (think, for example, of the Wise Men of Chelm stories). 4 4 On the wise men of Chelm, see Ruth von Bernuth, How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition (New York: New York University Press, 2016). It was in the popular literature of Sholem Aleichem, the touring vaudeville stage, and the early Hollywood studios that Jews used humor to cope with their difficult lives, to take back some power in times when they felt powerless, or to adapt to the world changing around them.
Similarly, for the immigrant Jews of London, humor in song and verse helped in the process of resettlement. Some of the comedy is biting, such as the songs that suggest extramarital affairs, and that anticipate the trope of the emasculated Jewish husband in American Jewish humor. One delightful character is the performer Beki Goldstein, a kind of Sophie Tucker or Joan Rivers-prototype, who brings the overwhelmed Jewish immigrant wives in on the joke as she lampoons her husband. Some of the satire is vicious and politically charged. Other humorous verses come from socialists sending-up Judaism and the rabbinate, or from frustrated immigrants satirizing the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Much of this humor did not necessarily feature Jewish characters or themes, but because it was in Yiddish, we can read it as distinctly Jewish. The music halls therefore provided Jewish audiences with a space where they could laugh, feel a release from the drudgery of their daily struggles, and feel empowered.
This study comes at a time when scholars are breaking new ground in writing on the decades of mass migration and their aftermath. A few recent companion studies come to mind. One such work is Debra Caplan’s pathbreaking study on the Vilna Troupe, which would help the reader situate the Yiddish theatre in the first half of the twentieth century as a migratory art. Caplan’s work on the Yiddish stage emphasizes some of what Lachs shows the reader in terms of the value of performance studies to understanding modern Jewish culture, but also in terms of how that culture migrates back and forth across borders. 5 5 Debra Caplan, Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018). Mark Mazower’s poignant memoir of his Russian grandfather who settled in post-World War I London might be read almost as a sequel to Whitechapel Noise. Also, Jan Schwarz’s study on post-Holocaust Yiddish literature, although focused on a later period, is a good example of work that highlights the transnational ties that shaped Yiddish culture in the twentieth century. These are just a sample of recent works that tie into the themes and methodologies Lachs lays down in Whitechapel Noise. 6 6 Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell: A Father’s Past and the Journey Home (New York: Other Press, 2018). Lachs continues the important work of shedding light on parts of the Jewish world that remain outside the realm of what have long been considered major Jewish centers, and highlights the physical, linguistic, and political mobility of Jews at the turn of the century.
Overall, Lachs makes a persuasive case that we ought to eschew the artificial high culture/low culture divide in assessing modern Jewish culture if we are to truly understand how Jews lived and understood the world around them. By looking at the cultural artifacts of the working Jewish masses, at the materials that were easily accessible and appealing to poor Jews, Lachs not only gives an insight into a story that has barely been told, but also provides a model for how to study the daily lives of ordinary Jews.