22 November 2022

Tales of ‘missing vowels
and vanishing dreams’
in ‘London Yiddishtown’

‘Brick Lane Restaurant’ by Pearl Binder (1931) … the cover illustration on ‘London Yiddishtown’ by Vivi Lachs © Estate of Peral Binder

Patrick Comerford

I was in Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue earlier this week to hear Dr Vivi Lachs talk about her new book, London Yiddishtown, which was published last November.

Vivi Lachs also read from her three selected East End writers, Katie Brown, AM Kaizer and IA Lisky, during a memorable afternoon presentation that was part of the synagogue’s adult education programme.

Dr Vivi Lachs is a social and cultural historian, Yiddishist, teacher and performer. She is a postdoctoral research fellow at Queen Mary University London. Her previous book is Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914 (Wayne State University Press, 2018). She was a Yiddish Book Centre Fellow in 2019, and her latest book, London Yiddishtown, is in part a result of that fellowship.

Vivi’s PhD at Royal Holloway in 2016 offered a new reading of East End immigrant history gleaned from the lyrics of the popular culture of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant community. She looked at poetry, satire, music-hall song, and insider debates on politics, sex and religion, and analysed them through the lenses of transnationalism and the push for anglicisation.

Her current research draws out social histories from Yiddish short stories written in London in the 1930s and 1940s. Her translated stories offer newly framed perspectives on fascism, antisemitism, Zionism and generational change.

In her latest book, London Yiddishtown, she looks at East End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story, presenting a selection of previously untranslated short stories and sketches by three selected writers, Katie Brown, AM Kaizer, and IA Lisky.

This is a book for the general reader and the academic alike. These intriguing and entertaining tales build a picture of a lively East End community in the 1930s and 1940s struggling with political, religious and community concerns.

Vivi Lachs includes a new history of the Yiddish literary milieu and biographies of the writers, with information gleaned from articles, reviews, and obituaries published in London’s Yiddish daily newspapers and periodicals.

This was the time when Fascism and Nazism were sweeping across Europe and of the Spanish Civil War. This was a time when Oswald Moseley was trying to march his black-shirts through the East End and of the Battle of Cable Street. And these were the decades of World War II and the Holocaust.

Her stories from the East End tell of clashing ideologies of communism, Zionism, fascism, and Jewish class difference. She retells stories of anti-fascist activism, political debate in a kosher café, East-End extras on a film set, and a hunger march by the unemployed.

Her tales explore philanthropy, upward mobility, synagogue politics, and competition between Zionist organizations. They expose the character and foibles of the community and make fun of foolish and hypocritical behaviour.

These are tales of ‘missing vowels and vanishing dreams.’ We read of competing cantors for a synagogue position in London, disaffected bar mitzvah boys struggling to learn their maftir, and pompous benefactors at the opening of an East End community kitchen.

Each section begins helpfully with a biography of the writer, before moving on to their stories with contextual notes.

Vivi Lachs is also a singer at Klezmer Klub and a performer and composer with Katsha’nes, a quartet of four women who specialise in Edwardian Jewish hall music. She has performed with Kathsha’nes on the 14-track CD Don’t ask silly questions. But instead of singing for us in Milton Keynes this week, she read excerpts from selected short stories by her three chosen writers.

Yehuda Itamar (IA) Lisky tells stories that recall ideological divisions among Zionists, the plight of hunger marchers and the rise of fascism.

Katies Brown’s sketches address episodes of daily life that reveal generational misunderstandings, and point to the different attachments to Jewish identity of the immigrant generation and their children, creating unresolvable fractures.

Arnold (Arye Myer) Kaizer was a journalist and community activist. In his story ‘Choosing Cantors’ (pp 88-91), set in Whitechapel, he tells of how ‘the cantors come from the four corners of the earth to audition. As you walk past a synagogue, you hear someone inside trilling, modulating, embellishing with ornaments, performing vocal tricks, and penetrating the highest echelons of heaven.’

The community is enthused by cantors with secondary skills: ‘We’ve already had a doctor-cantor, a professor-cantor, a pharmacist-cantor, an engineer-cantor, and even a comedian-cantor. Oh, and was he a joker! The congregation really liked him. He put a kind of clowning into the prayers, with strange affectations and facial expressions. When he blessed the new moon, people were rolling about with laughter.’

However, he was not chosen because the doctor cantor may be able to help if there was too much of a scrum parading with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah and someone got injured. But he was not chosen because he was not a medical doctor.

In the story ‘Where it Bubbles’ (pp 84-87), we meet the benefactors of a new kosher kitchen in Whitechapel providing subsidised meals for workers. At the opening event, with pompous one-upmanship, one benefactor after another describes their favourite meals: ‘One chap, the proprietor of a workshop with a pregnant-looking potbelly, squat and round as a bathtub, wanted to know what sort of soup they would be serving in the kitchen. ‘I myself,’ he proudly informed me, ‘like an international soup. What I mean is a barley soup with short lokshn, kliskes, farfl, beans, small shallots, carrots, giblets, veal bones, and any other bones with meat on them. I want to know if they give that sort of international soup or just a simple broth made solely from chicken.’

In all, London Yiddishtown presents 27 stories from these three writers. They offer fascinating insights into East End immigrant life, political, satirical, and yet a reminder that somewhere along the way everyone is a descendant of immigrants.

• Vivi Lachs, London Yiddishtown: East End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story, 1930-1950: Selected Works of Katie Brown, AM Kaizer, and IA Lisky (Wayne State University Press, 2021)

Vivi Lachs, ‘London Yiddishtown: East End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story, 1930-1950’ is published by Wayne State University Press

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Tuesday 22 November 2022

The bells in Preveli Monastery … a reminder of a story told by Nikos Kazantzakis in ‘Zorba the Greek’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the final week in Ordinary Time this year in the Calendar of the Church, the week between the Feast of Christ the King and Advent Sunday.

Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Saint Cecilia, Martyr at Rome, ca 230.

Saint Cecilia was one of the most revered martyrs of the Roman Church, but the only thing known for certain is that, at some point in the second or third century, a woman called Cecilia allowed the Church to meet in her house in Trastevere in the city of Rome and that, subsequently, the church erected on that site bore her name.

She was remembered as a brave woman who risked giving hospitality to the Christian Church when to do so was to court censure and possibly death. According to tradition, she converted her pagan husband and his brother to Christianity, and both were martyred before her. She is said to have been martyred on this day in about the year 230. She is honoured as the patron saint of musicians.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, a reflection or thought from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’ (Luke 21: 6) … classical remains in the Forum in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 5-11 (NRSVA):

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8 And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

‘Zorba the Greek’ … the film was released 58 years ago in December 1964

Nikos Kazantzakis, 2:

As I think today about Saint Cecilia, the patron of musicians and composers, I think too of the theme music composed by Mikis Theodorakis for the film Zorba the Greek

In my reflections on Saturday last, I referred to the actor Anthony Quinn, the star of Zorba the Greek, who was married for many years to Katherine Lester DeMille, granddaughter of Amy (Hunt) Lester, who is commemorated in a stained-glass window in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford.

The film Zorba the Greek is based on a well-known novel by the Greek writer and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis. Last month marked the 65th anniversary of his death in Freiburg, Germany, on 26 October 1957.

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is a giant of modern Greek literature, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on nine separate occasions. His books include Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified, Captain Michalis (also published as Freedom or Death), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs and philosophical essays such as The Saviours of God: Spiritual Exercises.

His fame spread in the English-speaking world because of the film adaptations of Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Zorba the Greek was first published in Greek in 1946 as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas (Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά).

Zorba the Greek includes the story of a monastery with a treasured icon whose name changes from Our Lady of Mercy to Our Lady of Revenge, and Zorba also tells a story in which his grandfather takes a piece of wood and claims it is part of the True Cross.

I was reminded of these episodes when I visited the Monastery of Preveli. The monastery is famed for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is celebrated in Greek lore, literature and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete during World War II.

In the film, the adventurous Zorba is the antithesis of the bookish Basil. Zorba is a potential symbol of freedom in Basil’s quest to find freedom. In Zorba’s view, only people who want to be free are truly human.

In many ways, the conflicts that unfold in the book provide a way for Kazantzakis to work through his own inner conflicts. At one time he had rejected Christianity and sought fulfilment in Buddhism and other philosophies. But he returned to Christianity and later wrote powerful novels about the sufferings of persecuted Christians in Asia Minor and about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

For Zorba, the journey is more important than the destination. He claims to be an atheist, yet realises that Christianity is central to the villagers’ way of life. He tells Basil: ‘the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!’

In many ways, Zorba gives expression to Kazantzakis’ own spiritual struggles: ‘God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognise him in all his disguises.’

Given the inadequate conclusions to Cop27 in Egypt at the weekend, Kazantzakis now seems to have been ahead of his time too when he expresses his concern for the environment, nature and creation: ‘For I realise today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.’

Zorba and Basil dance syrtáki on the beach in ‘Zorba the Greek’ … the music was composed by Mikis Theodorakis


Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Prophetic Voice of the Nation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Bishop Matthew Mhagama, from the Diocese of South-West Tanganyika in the Anglican Church of Tanzania.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us remember the evangelists working in difficult circumstances. May they be resilient, act honestly and be supported in their service.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Monastery of Preveli is celebrated in Greek lore, literature and movies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Cecilia, Patron of Musicians and Composers … a stained glass window in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)