Among the great tourist attractions of London are the guided walking tours. For some reason the British do them uniquely well. On walking tours in other cities, more often than not I’ve found myself hostage to a guide who is bossy, controlling, tedious — or all of the above. Alas, the discovery that the tour is going to be really bad usually hits about 10 minutes in, exactly at the moment when it’s too late to escape. You realize you are doomed to the company of this person for a good two hours — unless you can politely fake a sudden bout of food poisoning or peel off into a crowd unnoticed.
Happily I’ve found that this is generally not the case in London. I’ve taken many and here walking tour guides seem to be part historian, part comedian, and part actor. Stephen Burstin, a former Fleet Street journalist, leads the only tour of London’s historic Jewish east end. Fortunately, this monopoly does not affect the quality of his performance. I spent a delightful, if soggy, two hours with Stephen, traipsing through the old streets that, until the 1950s, teemed with Jewish immigrants for more than 400 years.
Most of the Jewish population now lives in north London — that’s where you go if you want to get a Kosher meal (although kashrut cuisine does not seem to have kept up with the modern transformation of English cooking). Yet until the middle of the last century, as many as 75% of London’s Jews still congregated on the streets their ancestors immigrated to after 1655, when Oliver Cromwell lifted the ban upon Jews living in England. Stephen conveyed vivid scenes of these Jewish arrivals washing up over the centuries on the docks of the Thames. From there they found their way to such evocatively named streets as Petticoat Lane, Brick Street, and even Jewry Street (the latter which dates back the Jews who lived there from the 11th through 13th centuries. According to Stephen, they arrived as financiers to William the Conqueror. But in 1290, Edward I confiscated their property and banished them to faraway lands — including Poland, Spain and Portugal).
One of the highlights of the tour was entry into Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Britain. It opened in 1701, after the Jews returned. By then, many of the Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquistion had found their way to friendlier Amsterdam. The architecture of Bevis Marks is said to “bear a striking resemblance to the Spanish and Portuguese Great Synagogue of Amsterdam, the mother congregation of Bevis Marks,” which had opened in 1675. Tucked into a courtyard, it’s easy to walk by it without knowing it’s there — which of course is intentional. While the Jews were welcomed back to England, there remained understandable nervousness about drawing too much attention to Jewish sites. Maybe so much so that while much of the surrounding area took heavy damage from Nazi bombers during the war, Bevis Marks emerged unscathed.
Thus the synagogue’s fully intact interior — while much simpler than London’s grander cathedrals — remains breathtaking. The seven massive brass chandeliers — representing the seven days of the week — are original (and still hold candles, despite the electrification of the synagogue in 1929). The sanctuary is surrounded by 12 ornate columns, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Many of Britain’s most famous Jews worshipped there, including the family of 19th-century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. These days, as most Jews have moved away, the synagogue has trouble pulling together minyans.
Interior Bevis Marks Synagogue. Photo courtesy of Stephen Burstin.
From Bevis Marks, we walked through narrow cobbled streets in Aldgate and Whitechapel, where you can still see the tenements into which Jews were crowded quite literally on top of each other. They worked in little skylit garrets at the top of these buildings, sewing, making shoes, etc. We passed the Liverpool train station, where there’s a monument to the children who arrived here during the war as part of the “Kindertransport.” Many, if not most, would never see their parents again.
As we walked over to Spitalfields — an enchanting and intact neighborhood built by the French Huguenots in the 18th century — Stephen noted the area has been the destination for fleeing, desperate refugees for more than 300 years. The Huguenots were Protestants escaping Catholic oppression; they were followed by the Irish escaping the Potato Famine; and then Russian and Eastern European Jews, who flooded the area in the late 19th century, escaping massive pogroms. As Stephen pointed out various old Jewish sites, the sweetish smells of curry and lemongrass emanated from nearby cafes and foodstands. This is the food of the most recent influx of persecuted immigrants — the Christian Bangladeshis who are escaping Islamic persecution in their homeland.
Exterior, Jewish soup kitchen, Spitalfields. The building has been turned into condos.
Photo by Danielle Frum.
Towards the end of the tour, I asked Stephen about his own Jewish background. It turns out his father was a World War II Polish immigrant, who began his new English life selling pots and pans out of a wheelbarrow in Petticoat Lane. An early Zionist, Motel Burstin’s original plan had been to learn commercial fishing and move to a kibbutz in then-Palestine. The problem was, Motel, a city boy from Warsaw, knew nothing about fishing — so he joined a Polish commercial deep sea fishing company to learn. In 1939, after just a few months out in the North Sea, the ship’s radio broadcast the German invasion of Poland. Citizens who were out of the country were urged to seek refuge in other countries. The captain turned the ship towards England — and that’s how Motel ended up pushing a wheelbarrow in London’s East End.
Stephen observed that his father would first go on to serve bravely in the British Merchant Marine — supplying Russian convoys with food, arms and supplies, a very dangerous task. After selling pots and pans, Motel went to work at a suitcase factory. Eventually he would buy the suitcase factory. Later he would become a succesful property developer and distinguished Labor politician. Stephen’s story was a wonderful cap to such a deeply moving tour.
“The Jews here have such a rich heritage. It’s engrossing and fascinating. I’m discovering more and more amazing stories all the time,” Stephen said. Leading these tours “is not just a livelihood — it’s my passion.”
Where to Eat in the Vicinity:
Ottolenghi Spitalfield’s Deli: The Spitalfield’s location is the most recent addition to the famous Israeli chef’s group of restaurants. The “deli” aspect of it means customers can choose to dine in the chic, light-filled dining room — or choose from his signature, mouthwatering display of dishes to take away.
50 Artillery Ln, London E1 7LJ.
Brick Lane Beigel Bake: In historic Brick Lane, this bagel outlet has been described as,”the oldest and best of the bagel shops in London” and a social mecca as well as a thriving 24 hour bakery that produces over 7000 bagels a night. Trendy kids and Jewish old-timers stand around chatting through the night as the work continues.”