From Danube to London: Yiddish Everyday Life

Some of us may not know very well about Jewish people and culture because of their background. Some of us like we Europeans acknowledge the presence of such race and religion, yet it does not necessary mean that we have the savoir-faire, or many of us are solely blasé about them. As a global citizen, it is indispensable to learn about various cultures and to understand issues surrounding them, especially this fascinating Jewish culture, which exists in almost every corner in the world. At Dr Berkowitz’s lecture on Tuesday, we explored several cultural aspects of Jews in Vienna that on some level coincides with that in London.


Over the centuries, Jews have been migrating all over Europe. Most settled in countries along the Danube River, and Vienna seems to be the place to go to. By the end of the 18th century, the ruler of Habsburg lands (which included Austria) granted rights like the freedom of movement and the ability practice any profession to all citizens. As a result, Jews from elsewhere like Romania, Hungary and other Slavic countries in the empire could move to Vienna, the capital city, and hence the population exploded.  There were around 200,000 Jews in Vienna with 100 prayer houses and 60 synagogues, such strong presence gradually made Viennese culture flourish. Jewish theater was a remarkable example.  The first Yiddish theater Jüdische Bühne (Jewish Stage) was established in 1908, and later there were more and more in the 20s and 30s, including Freie Jüdische Volksbühne (Free Jewish Popular Stage), Jüdisches Künstlerkabarett (Jewish Artists’ Cabaret) and the Jüdische Künstlerspiele (Jewish Art Theater). The artistic scene in Vienna was also in blossom. Artists like Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig Wittgenstein contributed enormously to the cultural life of the city, in terms of philosophy, music, science and poetry.

Apart from culture, Jews everyday life has seen advancement. We saw a significant increase in Jewish students in university, which made up almost one third of all students. Access to higher education resulted in better career prospectus. A lot of occupations like doctors and lawyers, businessmen and bankers were taken up by the Jewish population. Here we can be certain that Viennese Jews were well-integrated into urban society and culture. According to Dr. Berkowitz, a surprising amount of Jewish photo studios before 1938 was owned by Jewish women – three quarter, that gave them large amount of freedom to develop photography and fashion when women did not have full equal rights like man when it comes to working.vienna shooting girls

An exhibition in the Jewish Museum Vienna is currently showcasing a collection of photographs by eminent Jewish women such as Madame d’Ora. It goes without saying that, with so much Jewish influence immersing in to the Austrian capital, the first Jewish museum in Europe was opened in 1895 to recognize their contributions.

Similarly, an influx of Jewish immigrants in London evoked a reminiscent image of the cultural development in the Jewish community. London has now the second largest Jewish population in Europe and the fifth largest worldwide. In the 1880s to 1890s, massive pogroms in Russia forced thousands of Jews to relocate in the western world like America and Britain. About 120,000 stayed in the U.K. and around 95% of these Yiddish-speaking Jews were mostly concentrated in the Wentworth Street district of Spitalfields, East London. Like most of the Jews from Eastern Europe, those who came to London practised similar professions including entrepreneurship, trading and clothes making. Tailoring also seems to be one of the commonest occupations for these immigrants. In that era, it was suggested that five out of seven male Jewish workers involved in the tailoring industry or other ready-to-wear workshops, caps and waterproofing garments production. Despite a strong union trade movement lead with more than 50 specifically Jewish tailoring trade unions established, this sort of labour still worked in low-paid and poor working conditions. Therefore, we saw a tendency towards choosing a career involving fashion retail business. In addition, these newcomers also enjoyed what a lot of Jews from Easter Europe practised – Yiddish Theatre.

The first Yiddish theatre was open in Princes Street in 1886 – the Hebrew Dramatic Club (a.k.a. the Princes Street Social and Dramatic Club). Over the years, there has been an increasing number of theatres around London, for example the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, the Feinman Yiddish People’s Theatre, Grand Palais, the last remaining Yiddish theatre that closed down in 1970. Not to mention the famous New Yiddish Theatre at Adler Hall in Adler Street, whose plays included Merchant of Venice, Belsen Performance, Sulamith and The King of Lampedusa, that ranged from comedy to tragedy, drawing on Yiddish folk tales, adaptations of Shakespeare and stories of immigrant life.pavilion

The glamour of Yiddish Theatre started to diminish when many of the theatres closed down and eventually got converted into factories in the 1970s. Jewish theatre culture may seem to have faded away, but that is utterly an understatement for their presence. Nowadays, we are still able to locate various Jewish communities in areas such as Golders Green and Stamford Hill, where its population exceeds 30,000. When it comes to Jewish food, Brick Lane Beigel Bake has become a household name for those who crave for some late night snacks after a wild night-out. Be careful! Some say there are two Jewish bagel shops on Brick Lane which both claimed to be the authentic one. In order to decide which one is genuine, we will have to wait for another entry by our team mates who are going to visit the shops and give us a first-hand report.

Most of the Jewish communities in Europe share something in common – Yiddish Theatre. Although they suffered profoundly from the World War II, which casted a traumatic image on them, there was something special in these performances that brought our Jewish brothers and sister together. Their perpetual passion for performing arts gave them a sense of unity as a race and as a community; therefore it served as a crucial part in European cultural history.

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