Drawing by Caryn Rosmarin
Katsha'nes perform in the original London-Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
During the 1880s Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to London accelerated. Poverty stricken immigrants desiring a better life found themselves working in the sweated industries of the East End. Despite hardship, a vibrant Yiddish-speaking culture built up with an Anglo-Yiddish press, theatre and, for a short while, a thriving Yiddish music hall. Called shund (trash) by its critics and loved by its audiences, the music-hall brought Cockney-Yiddish pop songs to the Jewish East End.
Written by local immigrant performers, the songs concern work, money, marriage, love, and sex. They tell tales of abandoned wives, unemployment and homelessness in the East End. And all from within a local London context.
They tell of how religious immigrants found London a fraye medine, a free country where everything is turned upside down including morality. They tell of the breakdown of Eastern-European style arranged marriages and the need for young people to make their own matches in Crystal Palace and Victoria Park. They tell of how the East End housing crisis affected the immigrants, the proliferation of lodgers and of opportunities for sexual dalliance. They tell of living over one's means as the money trickles away. They concern upward mobility and aspirations for a better life. They show nostalgia for a religion that is hard to maintain in the tough East End where working on shabbes is the only way to survive. They speak of luck and hope, of joy and disappointment. They allude to promiscuity in a local dance school, sexual abuse in an East-End sweatshop and prostitution in Regent Street.
Although the songs may seem to reflect something of reality, they were written and performed as entertainment and cannot be taken at face value. The songs contain layers of insinuation and meaning. And, tucked within an innuendo and a belly-laugh, elements of Jewish immigrant social history, not explored before, can be tentatively revealed.