Salt Beef and Synagogues: London through a Jewish Lens

A slightly altered version of this post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

Some time ago my uncle opened the door to a flustered neighbour who asked, somewhat sheepishly, if there was any chance he could come round and turn on her dishwasher. It was a Friday night in the heart of Barnet, North London, and the neighbour was observing the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). This meant that a range of activities, or melakhot (loosely translatable as “work”), were forbidden.

I will not attempt to unpick the complex Rabbinical Law that enabled the neighbour to ring a doorbell but not switch on her dishwasher. Nor will I speculate on the legitimacy of getting the goy next door to do it for her. I do know, however, that her being able to carry her house keys around came courtesy of a phenomenon called the eruv, a ritual enclosure within which certain Shabbat prohibitions are relaxed.

Of the handful of eruvim in the UK, the North-West London one is by far the most famous. It is also the most controversial, with criticisms that include visual intrusiveness, de-secularisation of public space and risk of promoting religious segregation as more and more Jewish families move to be within in an eruv. Whether or not this last point has any factual basis, the location of the eruv is hardly surprising given the high concentration of Jews in this part of London, sometimes referred to as the “Bagel Belt”.

Golders Green in particular is renowned for its Kosher Restaurants (try Grodzinski’s bakery for braided challah bread), as well as numerous synagogues and a late Victorian Jewish Cemetery in which the cellist Jacqueline du Pré is buried. Nearby Finchley Road was previously dubbed “Finchleystrasse” when it became a magnet for German and Austrian Jews – amongst them Freud – fleeing Hitler’s regime. Now it is home to a new Jewish cultural hub, JW3, which offers talks, films, music and comedy as well as “Zest” café, run by Tel-Aviv born disciple of Ottolenghi, Eran Tibi.

As well as hosting refugees from Nazi Germany, this area has traditionally been a staging post for upwardly mobile Jewish families from the East End. Now synonymous with hipsters and Bangladeshi curry, Whitechapel and Stepney formed the epicentre of London Jewry in the early 20th Century. Hard as it is to imagine today, the aroma of brisket would have wafted up Brick Lane while Shoreditch echoed with the sound of Yiddish.

While the East End Jewish community has dwindled, a fascinating legacy remains. Some of London’s most beautiful synagogues can be found in this part of town, such as the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue on Commercial Road and nearby Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain. In fact, the Jamme Masjid (Friday Mosque) on Brick Lane is said to be one of the only buildings outside the Holy Land to have served all three Abrahamic faiths. It started out life as a Huguenot and subsequently Methodist Chapel before becoming the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, which it remained until the 1970’s.

For some context, visit 19 Princelet Street just round the corner, an old Huguenot weavers’ house, briefly a synagogue and now hosting occasional exhibitions on the area’s rich past. If that’s not enough, why not check out Stephen Burstin’s Sunday morning Jewish walking tours?

Staying on Brick Lane, a more tangible relic can be found in that quintessentially Jewish institution, the bagel shop. Of the two establishments at the top of the road make sure to go to Beigel Bake (the queues are longer for a reason) and opt for salt beef if your diet permits.

Meanwhile, at another institution over on Charing Cross Road, Gaby’s Deli, named after its Iraqi-born proprietor, the bagels are best passed over in favour of the delicious range of salads and hummus. As famous for its surly staff as for its food, the place looked set to be ousted by a chain restaurant until a Who’s Who of West End stars descended for a weekend of protest, cabaret-style, in 2011. Saved from encroaching neoliberal blandness, at least for now, you would still be wise to visit sooner rather than later.

Due to its long-standing history, amongst other factors, the city’s Jewish community is less obviously visible than some of its other religious minorities. One can forget the Jewish provenance of household names such as Marks and Spencer, Fish and Chips (look it up!) and Lord Sugar. Dig deeper and you will find plenty of Jewish Societies. These include SOAS’ own J-Soc which holds Shabbat events and is committed to combatting anti-Semitism on campus, a London Jewish Male Choir and even a Gay Jews in London network. And for a blast of high-vis why not check out Chanukah in the (Trafalgar) Square on December 16th? It promises free doughnuts, live music and an appearance from Boris Johnson to light London’s Brightest Menorah. Mazel Tov!