London’s Wild East: Cramped Old Jewish Quarter Produced Heroes and Villains

London’s Wild East: Cramped Old Jewish Quarter Produced Heroes and Villains

The good, the bad and the ugly didn’t just roam the Wild West. They laid claim to the Wild East too — the East End of London, where Jewish heroes and villains competed for the minds and souls of 200,000 impoverished Jewish immigrants.

The good came in the shape of philanthropists, idealistic young Jews and others with big hearts. The bad included mischievous anarchists, the bizarre rabbi who practiced sorcery, and the Kosher Nostra, spawning several generations of vicious gangsters.

The ugly? Well, that’s the sprawling and appalling two square miles of the East End’s Old Jewish Quarter, where the 200,000 were crammed into pitiful accommodations, earning a reputation as Britain’s most overcrowded slum of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lord Nathan Mayer Rothschild
Lord Nathan Mayer Rothschild

To improve the living conditions, Lord Nathan Mayer Rothschild, Britain’s first Jewish lord, built a series of apartment blocks to provide subsidized housing for several thousand families. Rothschild led countless other philanthropic works, all aimed at improving the lives of the Eastern European Jews who settled in the East End.

But there was a dark side to Rothschild’s dealings with the Jewish immigrants, earning him the double billing of Jewish hero and villain.

With the onset of the 20th century, Rothschild and other long-established, wealthy, Anglicized Jews felt that their hard-won status in company boardrooms was being jeopardized by the continuing influx of ill-mannered Eastern Europeans who spoke only Yiddish, dressed like peasants and refused to adapt to their new surroundings.

In the 1900 general election Rothschild backed the anti-Semitic Conservative David Hope-Kyd, who described Jewish immigrants as “the scum of the unhealthiest continental nations.”

The new Zionist Federation of Britain also declared its support for Hope-Kyd because he favored a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The federation apparently did not care that his support for Zionism was governed by his hatred of Jews and desire to rid the East End of them.

Oblivious to English politics were members of the Machsike Hadass Synagogue in the East End’s Brick Lane. An ultra-Orthodox community whose name meant Upholders of the Faith, their synagogue was the scene of a most unorthodox confrontation between Jews during Yom Kippur in 1904.

When worshippers came out of their synagogue to take a break, Jewish anarchists were lying in wait and pelted them with bacon sandwiches. The worshippers fought back, and Brick Lane soon became a battleground with fists and lumps of bacon flying amid the cashmere coats, fur hats and ringlets.

The nearby Great Synagogue was the seat of Britain’s chief rabbi for a couple of centuries. Most renowned of those holding the high office was Nathan Marcus Adler, who started his rabbinical career in his German hometown of Hanover. There he became a hero for Queen Victoria.

Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, shown as a young man, helped protect the succession from Queen Victoria to King Edward VII.
Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, shown as a young man, helped protect the succession from Queen Victoria to King Edward VII.

In 1840 the queen, seven months pregnant with her first child, was visiting Hanover when labor pains began, causing panic for the royal court: If the child were born on German soil, his succession to the English throne might be in question.

Among the guests of the royal party was financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who was praying in the Hanoverian synagogue, where Adler was the rabbi. After prayers, Montefiore told Adler about the royal dilemma, and the rabbi reminded his visitor that the British warship Ark Royal, on which the queen had traveled to Germany, was moored just 100 miles away at Bremerhaven. A child born on the ship would be seen as having been born on English soil.

Montefiore relayed this advice, and Queen Victoria was rushed to the ship, which set sail into international waters. She gave birth to the future King Edward VII that night and did not forget the Hanover rabbi.

An 1881 painting depicts Sir Moses Montefiore.
An 1881 painting depicts Sir Moses Montefiore.

In 1845, her attention was drawn to the quest for a new chief rabbi, and she sent a note to the Jewish community: “Since Rabbi Adler saved me when I was in trouble, he will certainly be the right guardian and leader for your congregation.”

And so it was.

A century earlier, another German-born rabbi at the same synagogue was Chaim Jacob Samuel Falk. Alchemist, Freemason and Kabbalist, Falk arrived in London in 1742 after fleeing Westphalia to avoid being burned at the stake for sorcery.

The legends associated with Falk became more and more bizarre over the years.

One story said that when the back wheel of his carriage came off along Whitechapel Road, he ordered the coachman to drive on, and the wheel followed the carriage the rest of the way. When a fire broke out at the Great Synagogue and all efforts at dousing the flames failed, Falk reportedly wrote G-d’s name on the main door frame, causing the wind to change direction and ending the blaze.

In 1942, during World War II, a 14-year-old started his apprenticeship in an East End hairdressing shop. That lad, Vidal Sassoon, went on to be a Jewish hero.

Sassoon was too young to fight in the war, but afterward, at age 17, he became the youngest member of the 43 Group, which broke up Fascist meetings in East London. The Daily Telegraph later called him an “anti-fascist warrior-hairdresser.”

In 1948 at age 20, he joined the Haganah and fought in the Israeli War of Independence. During an interview many years later Sassoon described the year he spent training with the Israelis as the best of his life.

Less heroic was Max Moses, a leading member of the East End’s Stop at Nothing gang in the early 20th century. Also known as the Bessarabians because the Jewish gang originated in the Bessarabia region on the Russian-Romanian border, they were “the greatest menace ever known to London,” police inspector Benjamin Leeson said at the time.

Moses’ first victims were Jewish shopkeepers, who were ordered to pay protection money and rarely went to the police because the authorities in their Eastern European homelands were more often villains than saviors.

An engraving from 1810 depicts London’s Great Synagogue.
An engraving from 1810 depicts London’s Great Synagogue.

Moses’ next target was the parents of prospective brides. A few days before a wedding, he would approach the bride’s parents and threaten to expose all manner of embarrassing indiscretions unless he was paid off.

A gang war broke out between the Bessarabians and another Jewish gang, the Odessians. Fearing arrest for the murder of an Odessian, Moses fled to America. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I, acted in a few Hollywood movies, and avoided a life sentence for the murder of his seventh wife on the grounds of brain damage caused by years in the boxing ring. He committed suicide in Detroit in 1940.

Other Jewish gangs came and went in the East End, earning the nickname of the Kosher Nostra.

Stephen Burstin ( is a former journalist and conducts Jewish-themed guided tours in London.

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