Charlie, [gesturing to Fascist General Franco on screen] fucking swine isn’t he?

William Pimlott

In the past, it could be argued that the rich range of writing on British Jewish history focused little on the leisure spaces of its Jewish subjects. While the stories of its radical trade unions, its religious movements, and its communal conflicts were well explored, we knew far less about how British Jews relaxed, what they laughed or cried at, or how they had fun. The great promise of Gil Toffell’s new book Jews, Cinema and Public Life in Interwar Britain, and the release of Alan Dein’s new CD compilation of Jewish music, Music is the most beautiful language in the World: Yiddisher Jazz in London’s East End 1920s-1950s, is that we might begin to get a sense of how vivid and dazzling Jewish life was in the period: we might get to go along to the cinema before catching a snippet of the jazz tune that the cinema-goer whistled on the way home.

These two new works join a belated cultural turn in scholarship on British Jewry, adding an important contribution to recent works on British Jews and sport, British Jewish photography, and British Jewish popular music and music hall culture. 1 1 See David Dee, Sports and British Jewry: Integration, Ethnicity and Anti-Semitism, 1890-1970, Michael Berkovitz, Jews and Photography in Britain, 2015 and Vivi Lachs, Whitechapel Noise:Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914.
Gil Toffell’s book delivers the fullest possible discussion of British Jews and cinema, first exploring the physical space that cinemas occupied, before analyzing both the films that British Jews watched and made and how they reacted to them, especially against the backdrop of German antisemitism and fascism.

Toffell begins by describing the urban Jewish cinema culture of the 1920s and 30s. The cinema in the period Toffell tackles was a loud space, full of audiences screaming to one another that they had seats reserved, ready to boo villains on screen and even comment aloud on films being shown. One anecdote stands out above all the others: an observer, as part of a broader social study, follows a group of young working class men from Whitechapel (the heart of London’s Eastern European Jewish community) to the cinema. At the end of a sympathetic film, one of the viewers sees Franco come on screen to be glorified:

“Charlie,” [one of the young men says to the other]: “Fucking swine isn’t he?” (41)

Often the cinema was not just strictly for film, but in fact the venue for a broader show: screenings were preceded or accompanied by live musical or variety performances. Queues for these events would spill out around the corner. The Rivoli Cinema, for example, at 100 Whitechapel Road, in East London, would welcome night after night Ted “Kid” Lewis, born Gershon Mendeloff, “The Aldgate Sphinx,” a former world champion boxer who performed in exhibition bouts and was enormously popular with the local Jewish community. Crowds desperate to attend caused Whitechapel Road, a major East London thoroughfare, to be blocked (35). Unfortunately, the violence was not limited to staged fights: in just one example of the abundant period detail that Toffell presents, we hear of a “Princess Hall fracas,” where a Mr. Joe Taylor, cinema-goer, was robbed of his watch at the back of the cinema by a Mr. Morris Platz, before a frenzied argument in Yiddish on the pavement outside ended with Mr. Taylor unconscious and Mr. Platz eventually imprisoned (29).

In this golden age of the British Jewish film there was also a frenzy of bold cinema building, again with significant British Jewish involvement, which burst onto the street and boldly proclaimed the importance of the movie house. And the cinemas in predominantly Jewish areas also announced their Jewishness with Yiddish signs and explicitly ethnic bills of fare. Toffell’s book understands the cinema not just as a simple venue for films. Rather, the space serves as the bold herald of modernity on the inner city and suburban street, proclaiming its own Jewishness by staging Jewish fare.

Toffell then guides us away from the architecture of the cinema’s garish and scintillating exteriors and vibrant interiors to the films themselves and how they were received. Toffell makes use of a variety of sources, stretching beyond traditional ones like the Anglo-Jewish newspapers The Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish World, to venues such as o Di Tsayt, Morris Myer’s Yiddish daily, and also to audio interviews, both pre-recorded and conducted by Toffell himself. Unfortunately, and it will disappoint many of the readers of In geveb as it did the reviewer, Toffell confirms that no Yiddish films were produced in Britain. But many Yiddish films made elsewhere were shown in cinemas and enthusiastically advertised in the newspapers: “COME SEE! AND HEAR! THE MOTHER TONGUE” ran one such advertisement in Yiddish in Di Tsayt (87) . Yiddish films that were screened in London would then tour to Cheetham in Manchester and Leylands in Leeds. Uncle Moses (a 1932 film based on Sholem Asch’s novel and starring Maurice Schwartz) made it as far as Newcastle where it was screened to raise money for those fleeing Nazism (89). Non-Yiddish language films with Jewish themes were also very popular, as were Zionist films.

The Jewish community in Britain, as the political conditions in Europe darkened, began to invest communal hope in the power of cinema to combat antisemitism, and took pride in their prominent role in the film business. But it also led to antisemitic opposition.The Fascist, a British far-right newspaper, referred to Gaumont-British, one of the most significant organizations in the British film industry in the 1930s and run by Jewish East Ender Isidore Ostrer as “Gaumont-Yiddish” (168). In sophisticated close readings Toffell is able to unpack how the British Jewish reactions to films could differ from the broader British public’s and thereby outline the broader implications for understanding antiSemitism in the period. The British production of Jew Süss (1934) (not to be confused with the 1940 Nazi propaganda film) is a key example. Gaumont-British were strongly resolved in the early 1930 to release a film which tackled antisemitism. They chose to produce Jew Süss, based on Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 novel, which depicted the rise and fall of the famous court Jew Joseph Süß Oppenheimer. In the movie Oppenheimer is shown as personally ambitious but also committed to helping the Jewish community, rising in influence until at one point he is able to intervene to help a Jew who has been falsely accused of ritual murder (161). For the Jewish community, the film’s great triumph was the tactful direction and acting of Conrad Veidt, who played Oppenheimer’s resistance and eventual fall to antisemitism with great restraint. The film successfully depicted historical antisemitism and made bold allusions to the present. Toffell quotes a key exchange in the film between Oppenheimer and his friend Landauer:

“Dismissing his friend’s report of anti-Jewish persecution, Süß asserts, “Ach! Old fables… we are now in 1730!” To which Landauer responds, “They can do it in 1730, they can do it in 1830, they can do it in 1930.” (161)

However, the community was aghast at the ending, which showed Oppenheimer executed in front of a crowd of wailing Jewish friends. Commentators in the Jewish press, in English and in Yiddish, felt this detracted from the potentially stoic and heroic message of the film by appealing to emotion. Non-Jewish British reviewers, however, thought the ending was a “Great Climax” and the rest of the film boring (167). The film became a key and contested battleground for testing the broader public’s attitude towards antisemitism, and some reactions point to the limits of cinema to produce a designed cultural and ideological shift.

After Toffell proves so conclusively the importance of cinema to British Jews in this period, it feels almost inevitable to read that Mosleyite fascists chose to protest outside the Troxy Cinema in London’s East End, shouting “Read the Blackshirt. The only British paper not financed by Jews.” If British Jews attended the cinema and made films to try and defend their community’s position, they were also targeted both at cinemas and in newspapers for their connection to film.

Depressing too is the sober reminder that German bombs destroyed the Rivoli Cinema in the East End. To quote Toffell: “A site that had once been at the centre of the lived materiality of London’s Jewish cinema culture was instantly reduced to flames and rubble” (201). Beyond the bombs and the lost cinemas, the process of suburbanization also did much to end the specific urban Jewish cinema culture described in this book (though this process was already incipient in the period and Toffell explores this in depth). Well-researched and wide ranging in its use of sources (including a selection of fascinating photographs), Toffell has succeeded in bringing this world back to life.

Leo Fuld, a Dutch-Jewish singer, is a precious link between the cinematic and musical worlds of Jewish Britain. In 1935 he starred in a stage show which accompanied the Yiddish language film The Eternal Wanderer, and he features on Alan Dein’s remarkable compilation of Yiddish music recorded in Britain from the interwar years and after. Singer Max Bacon opens the album with a humorous and jaunty invitation to eat his “beigels”:

If you are coming up to London town to spend a day or so,
Take my advice and go
Where the Yidishe breezes blow.
You must believe me when I tell you it’s so cosmopolitan,
Once there you’ll be a fan
Of old Maxie the beigel man.

It’s an invitation that is very hard to refuse. The music is indeed cosmopolitan: a heady mix of jazz and Eastern European Jewish melodies, infused with influences as diverse as rumba, as is the case for the opener. The songs are either in Yiddish or a heavily accented Cockney English, and it is the entirely Yiddish “Whitechapel” that most stands out. The singer, Chaim Towber, sings a lament to the beloved neighborhood, describing its foods and people, having himself mournfully moved to Golders Green (a suburb of London with many Jewish residents):

Although I live now in Golders Green,
I am drawn back there,
Where I left my youth and my health,
We miss your Yiddish songs
Where are those dear Jews?
They’re running to gamble at the dogs.

Dein’s album is full of such treasures and is also accompanied by an informative booklet authored by him, in which “Whitechapel” is translated by the much admired and loved London Yiddishist Barry Davies, who passed away in December 2017 and to whom this album is dedicated. It is a fitting and moving tribute.

But Towber’s note of nostalgia is exceptional. In fact the energy and humor of the collection stand out. Stanley Laudan’s “Yiddisher Samba” (“tasty like salmon, mit tsibeles (onions) and cucumber”) is a rollicking jaunt, while Johnny Frank and his Cocher Ragtimers’ mock love song to a Wilhelmina in Copenhagen, “Wilhelmina,” is rambunctiously hilarious:

Wilhelmina, she drives all the fellas meshugene in Copenhagen (Chorus: in Copenhagen)
Un di rozes in her cheeks (keyn eyn hore)
Un di khutspa when she speaks (keyn eyn hore)
Un da way her kisses taste
Kinda heymish like my bube’s danish pastries

This unique anglo-Yiddish humor, irreverent, full of the patter of the cockney East End, comes to the fore. The tone is balanced, however; as with Fuld’s evocative cantor’s performance of “Hebrew chant,” we also get an inkling of what the more traditional components of the community might have enjoyed. Particularly moving too is the bonus track for those who purchase the CD, an austere and moving choral performance by a Jewish children’s choir, which was originally released to raise money for the “Poor Jews Temporary Shelter,” a charity founded in 1885 to help poor immigrants. The variety and verve of this compilation, where Jewish music fuses brilliantly with Jazz, Rumba, Samba, and music-hall comedy, shows that British Jewish music, much like the broader community, is almost impossible to categorize and narrowly classify.

It is worth hoping that this academic work and popular music compilation might draw some international readers to look into British Jewish history and culture. Certainly, international Jewish film and music scholars will find much to surprise them in the extent of the contribution the British Jewish community made to Jewish popular culture, both in film and music, and in the enthusiastic reception diverse forms of Eastern European and German Jewish culture received on British shores. Toffell’s in-depth analyses of the urban spatial consequences of the Jewish cinema in Britain, in particular, ought to create interesting echoes in wider scholarship on the Jewish cinema. Specifically Yiddish culture, in Britain, often viewed as marginal compared to other diasporic Jewish settlements, was significant as these two cultural documents show.

But it is not just international Yiddishists who should look at this work. Cinema and immigration have not been held historically as important parts of Britain’s history, or certainly not so significant as in the case of the US. Toffell’s book upends this complacency. Through the book’s attention to newspaper sources, Jewish and non-Jewish, and to a vast array of accounts, Jewish cinema and Jewish popular culture more broadly are shown to form a key part of the story of interwar Britain, its cultural responses to antisemitism, and the emergence of its many immigrant cultures.

Gil Toffell: Jews, Cinema and Public Life in Interwar Britain
Palgrave Macmillan: 2018. 227 pages. £62.99. ISBN 978 1 137 56931 8

Alan Dein, Music is the most beautiful language in the World: Yiddisher Jazz in London’s East End 1920s-1950s
JWM Records. £7.00

Pimlott, William. “Charlie, [gesturing to Fascist General Franco on screen] fucking swine isn’t he?.” In geveb, May 2019:
Pimlott, William. “Charlie, [gesturing to Fascist General Franco on screen] fucking swine isn’t he?.” In geveb (May 2019): Accessed Apr 12, 2024.


William Pimlott

William Pimlott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism.