by Jason Lever
Posted on Sun, 01 Dec 2013 17:05:35 GMT
Involvement in Toynbee Hall and The Workers’ Circle
Between 1870 and 1914, secularisation and assimilation in the Jewish East End meant the synagogue gradually lost the undisputed place it had occupied in the Russian Pale of Settlement as ‘the hub of communal and cultural life’ (ref: Gartner).
The great novelist, Israel Zangwill, in “Children of the Ghetto” (1892), could still describe the East End synagogue as ‘their salon and their lecture hall. It supplied them not only with their religion, but their art and letters, their politics and their public amusements’.
However, by the 1930s, ‘many of the religious traditions and observances which the immigrants had brought with them had lapsed’ (ref: Fishman, 1979). Instead, a significant minority – including Solomon – were finding space to pursue educational, political and cultural activities through institutions such as Toynbee Hall and the Workers’ Circle.
Settlements like Toynbee Hall were established with substantial Jewish immigrant participation in their educational and cultural activities (ref: Gartner). James Mallon CH was a long-serving Warden (1919 to 1954) and he headed the Council of Citizens of East London which united a number of anti-fascist groups (ref: Sokoloff). Solomon Lever was likely to have been involved in various activities at Toynbee Hall, which founded the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1901. Solomon later became a Trustee of the Galley.
Pre-emigration, one prominent response of eastern European Jews to ‘increasing securalisation and modernisation [was] Yiddishism, the ethnic and cultural programmes of the Marxist Jewish Bund’ – in full, the General Jewish Labour Alliance in Russia, Poland and Lithuania! (ref: Srebnik). Hence the founding in London’s East End of the Workers’ Circle (Der Arbeitering) – and often referred to just as “The Circle” – in Alie Street by Jewish immigrant workmen. It was different to other mutual aid organisations in being a workers’ organisation – as it described itself, 'an order of workers for workers, and for progressive thought' (Ref: Rocker).
By 1921 there were over 1,000 members and nearly 3,000 by 1935. Charles Poulsen, in “Scenes from a Stepney Youth”, described it as a ‘social and educational centre [plus friendly society]… [for] tailors, pressers, machinists, cabinetmakers – all the gamut of local trades’ (ref: Poulsen). An interviewee in “Our East End” recalls that each room in the big house ‘was a different union or different organisation’ (ref: Dudgeon).
Active Workers’ Circle members including Solomon Lever are cited among the participants in the opening of a folk house on Adler Street in 1943 by the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists (ref: Srebnik). Solomon was in Branch One and on the central Management Committee.
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