Folksong and its relatives, frequently popular responses to contemporary events, can offer fascinating insights into the lives of their composers and audiences. Vivi Lachs has unearthed and examined Yiddish songs and poetry written in London around the turn of the 20th century by members of the wave of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the wake of the pogroms and economic uncertainty set in motion by the antisemitic May Laws of Tsar Alexander III.
Once in London, many were as good as enslaved in the cruel sweatshop system. They found little sympathy or support among established members of Anglo-Jewry, who saw their Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European co-religionists as an embarrassment, to be Anglicised and de-Yiddishised. Moses Angel, the head teacher of the Jewish Free School, “banned the speaking of Yiddish, and the school taught mainly secular subjects” (Yiddish only began to be taken seriously as a literary language in the late 19th century, with the encouragement of the Jewish Labour Bund, founded in Vilna in 1897). Meanwhile, the Jewish Chronicle regularly campaigned against immigrant prayer houses. In the Yiddish song and verse of the immigrants, we learn of their condition and response to it. The Chief Rabbi is referred to as “the West End goy”. He, in turn, regarded the Yiddish theatre as a “synagogue for sin and apostasy”.