2012 Date Europe Food Geography Interest Jewish Interest

Jellied Eel and Afternoon Prayers

I hadn’t intended for this posting to again have a Jewish theme, but I can’t control what happens on the road. Jewish-related travel experiences seem to find me; often in the most unlikely of circumstances and even if I am not looking for them.

Including most recently last week in London, on a typically gray Wednesday, while en-route to see a friend at the offices of an international law firm in London’s East End.

On this particular Wednesday I had a morning meeting near the Aldgate tube station. The meeting finished earlier than planned at 11.30am, and I had scheduled an afternoon meeting in the same area, starting at 3.00pm. With a longer than expected gap between meetings, I needed something to do. I consulted a map and saw that I was near the Old Spitalfields Market. Frequent travel has taught me that a market is always a great way to kill a few hours, so I set off by foot in that direction. I was following the map for directions as I walked, and thus noticed the name “Bishops Square” marked on it, quite close to the market.

“Bishops Square” rang a bell in my head as being the London address of Allen & Overy, a leading global law firm. This was kind of strange – it is not like I have memorised the addresses of London’s entire legal fraternity – and I can think of no reason at all why I should know this particular piece of inane trivia, other than perhaps an old university buddy now being a partner at that firm. On a whim I decided to changed plan – I would skip the market and wander over to my friend’s office, where perhaps I could surprise him and we could then catch-up over lunch.

The map suggested that the fastest route to Bishops Square from my current location was via a tangle of smaller side-streets. That is to say, on paper it looked like it would be faster to duck through the side-streets as compared to walking along the main road, but in reality, given my navigation skills, it was a near certainty that I would get hopelessly lost. Despite this I was feeling adventurous and had time on my hands, so I decided to attempt the short-cut.

And this is how I came to be walking down some narrow back-lanes in London’s East End, at around lunchtime on an overcast Wednesday in April. As I walked through these side-streets, the modern glass-fronted office blocks of commercial London disappeared, replaced on both sides by dour brick structures. They looked to be factory buildings originally built in the 19th century, glaring down at me and casting ominous shadows. It all felt rather Dickensian – with a touch of imagination I could very easily have been walking through the grimy cobbled streets of industrial-age England.

As happens with maddening frequency in London, it started to rain. I did not have an umbrella, and the rain fell hard enough that I would get uncomfortably wet if I did not stop. I therefore made a bee-line for the first sheltered place I could see, a few metres further along the alleyway. It was not much of a shelter – just a couple of steps leading up to a locked door – but the steps were covered and so the little alcove in front of the door was dry. I stood there and responded to a few emails while waiting for the rain to ease off.

As happens with maddening frequency in London, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Time to go, and I stepped out into the alleyway to continue on my way, still looking at the screen of my infernal Blackberry machine as I did so. Inexplicably, I had the sudden impulse to look up and to my right. And, hello, what’s this? A nondescript white and black sign informed me that of all the millions of doorways in the City of London, I had chosen to shelter from the rain in none other than the front doorway belonging to Sandy’s Row Synagogue.

Now, at first blush, this might not seem all that remarkable – London does have a sizeable Jewish population, and in certain parts of London, synagogues are dime a dozen. However, as I discovered, Sandy’s Row Synagogue is the only remaining synagogue in an area of London that was once so littered with synagogues it was often referred to as the “Jewish East End”.

Consider, just for a moment, the odds involved here: I found Sandy’s Row Synagogue only because I was in London and had an unexpected gap between two meetings, both of which were in the East End, an area of London I am not familiar with. I had consulted a map to find somewhere to pass the time, and I had randomly recognised the address of a law firm that an old friend just happens to work at, and on the spur of the moment I had decided to surprise him with a lunchtime visit. I had deviated from the main road to follow what looked to be a short-cut, even though I knew I almost certainly would get lost. I didn’t have an umbrella, and at the very instant that it began to rain, I was passing by the covered doorway of the only synagogue within miles.

Even then, the doorway was unmarked, and I had stood there sending emails for ten minutes, completely unaware of what the building was. Had I not had the impulse to turn my head and look up as I was walking away, I would have never known that I had sheltered from the rain while leaning on the locked front door of the one and only synagogue in an area otherwise completely devoid of synagogues.

Coincidences like this do not, I would suggest, happen every day.

I would have gone in to look around, but as mentioned, the door was locked and the synagogue was shut to the public. It was around 12.00pm, and the sign informed me that the synagogue would next open at 1.45pm, for afternoon prayers (mincha). Too long to wait, plus I was hungry, so I left.

That would have been the end of it, but my friend at Allen & Overy was out at a meeting for the rest of the day, and so fifteen minutes later I found myself without any lunch plans and once more looking for something to do to pass the time. Intrigued by my discovery of a synagogue in the middle of one of London’s newer business districts, I sat down in a cafe with a wireless hotspot, ordered a cappuccino, and began some impromptu online research.

I learned that Sandy’s Row Synagogue was originally built as a French convent almost 250 years ago, but in 1870 a group of Dutch Jews acquired the building and turned it into a synagogue. It is the oldest Ashkenazi (European Jewish) synagogue in London.

Around the time that the synagogue was established, millions of Jews were fleeing from persecution in Eastern Europe, mainly heading to the United States. Many of the boats they travelled on stopped in London, and around 100,000 of these Jewish refugees decided to cut their journey short and become citizens of the British Empire. Not knowing the language and not knowing the city, these new arrivals often settled in the first place they saw, being the immediate vicinity of London’s docks. They needed to work, and the clothing industry was the dominant one in that area at the time. Ergo, an influx of Eastern European Jews turned London’s East End, c.1900, into a vibrant Jewish township, with the rag-trade – or in Yiddish, shmattas – becoming the economic life blood of the community.

There is an old joke: “put two Jews in a room and you will have three arguments”. London back then was no different. The newcomers from Eastern Europe were often illiterate and poor, and this was a tad embarrassing to the thoroughly anglicized and well-established Jewish community of London at that time. So much so that Nathan Adler, the then Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue Organisation, wrote an open letter to his rabbinic counterparts in Eastern Europe. In it, displaying the most brazen chutzpah imaginable, he suggested that these other Rabbis should convince their congregants to stay put where they were, never mind the pogroms:

“….it is difficult for Jewish Immigrants [to Britain] to support themselves and their households, and at times they contravene the will of their Maker on account of poverty and overwork, and violate the Sabbath and Festivals…. I implore every rabbi of a community…. to publicise the evil which is befalling our brethren who have come here, and to warn them not to come to the land of Britain, for such ascent is a descent.”

The Chief Rabbi’s warnings obviously fell on deaf ears, as Jewish refugees continued arriving in London right up to the eve of World War II. The East End’s Jewish population swelled, so much so that at one point Jews comprised around 95% of those living in the Spitalfields area. This is a staggering statistic – even modern day Tel Aviv in Israel has a lower percentage of Jewish inhabitants (93%, in case you are interested).

As a result, Spitalfields and the surrounding neighbourhoods, for a while at least, came to resemble a typical European shtetl, relocated to England. Yiddish (presumably with a cockney accent) was the lingua franca on the streets, and there were numerous synagogues, yeshivas, welfare societies, Jewish schools, local newspapers and even Yiddish theatres in operation. As with Jews everywhere, food was a central focus of daily life – in 1901 there were apparently 15 kosher butchers on one street alone, not to mention rows of stores selling bagels, salt beef, cured herring, pickled cucumbers and other foods favoured by Eastern European Jews.

Why is it that it that with me, it always seems to come back to food ? Here I was, nursing a mediocre coffee in an even more mediocre City cafe, and somehow I had finished up reading about the Jewish comfort foods I had grown up on, in my grandma’s kitchen. This was all making me extremely hungry, it was lunchtime, and I had not yet had anything to eat.

Continuing the trend in what was turning into a whole day of strange coincidences, at the very moment my stomach began grumbling I was reading a web-site dedicated to the history of the Jews of London, and something unusual caught my attention. There, in the small print towards the bottom of the page, was a reference to Tubby Isaac’s – World Famous Jellied Eels, “one of the last authentic remnants” of the Jewish East End. The address given was a street adjacent to the nearby Petticoat Lane Market.

A century ago, Petticoat Lane Market was the epicentre of the rag-trade in which many migrant Jews were employed, and in 1919 Isaac “Tubby” Brenner, who as his name suggests was both Jewish and ample of girth, began selling jellied eels there, initially from a wooden barrow and later, once his popularity grew, from a permanent cart.

In 1938 Tubby migrated with his family to America, and his assistant Solomon Gritzman inherited the business (no prizes for guessing his religion, although history does not record whether he was as sizeable as the original proprietor). Since then, Tubby Isaac’s has operated continuously, through several changes of ownership. Today, as one tourist web-site puts it: “this is a little piece of East End Jewish history… and every proprietor is known, inevitably, as ‘Tubby’”; another said that jellied eel a-la Tubby is “synonymous with traditional and specifically, Jewish East End working class culture”.

One fairly glaring technical issue immediately occurred to me. A jellied eel may be many things, but it most certainly is not a food that the good Lord in His infinite wisdom deemed to be kosher. That is, according to Jewish dietary laws a jellied eel is not fit for consumption. It therefore seemed a bit strange to me that this particular food came to be regarded as representative of the Jews who lived in the East End.

The explanation for this anomaly lies in the fact that eels were, for centuries, a popular staple of London’s poor – plentiful, nutritious and most importantly, cheap. Establishment London Jews, like their well-heeled non-Jewish friends, looked down on the humble eel as being a working class food to be avoided, kosher or not. Their newly arrived poor cousins from Eastern Europe had slightly different things on their mind (ie: not starving). They rapidly assimilated and this included developing a liking for the low-cost local snack of jellied eel. Tubby Isaac simply served the market as he found it. The rest, as they say, is history….

I was hooked (pardon the pun) – the not-in-the-least-bit-kosher but nonetheless traditionally-Jewish jellied eel suddenly sounded like a really good idea for lunch. Never mind that I didn’t have the faintest idea what jellied eel actually was, apart from the assumption that it involved an eel (the Japanese eat eel – unagi – so how bad can it be?) and some jelly (semi-naked chicks sometimes wrestle in it, so how bad could that be?). Without any further thought I hot-footed it over towards Petticoat Lane, and in short order was standing on the sidewalk in front of Tubby Isaac’s, staring at a bowl of world famous jellied eel, soaked in vinegar, which I was told is “cockney-style”.

So, what was it like?

In a nutshell, jellied eel is similar to unagi in the way that an omelet, say, can be said to be similar to a fermented, week-old, rotting egg – a perfectly edible and sometimes quite delicious food rendered, for no apparent good reason, into something that borders on being a cruel and unusual torture.

You make jellied eel by chopping a recently deceased eel into bite-sized chunks, boiling those chunks in a heavily herbed stock for hours, and then allowing it all to cool, during which process the eel will emit a gooey substance which forms a natural jelly as it coagulates. You then can serve the eel hot or cold, according to taste (although in this context I am not sure the use of the word “taste” is what the Oxford Dictionary ever intended).

If the detail of its preparation doesn’t permanently put you off from trying it, you may find, as I did, that jellied eel has a soft, gelatinous and frankly quite gross texture, apart from the bones and skin, which texturally adds a whole new level of grossness to deal with.

The flavour is, well, just wrong. Sort of like a spiced, slightly rancid pickled herring, in a coating of aspic, only not. I wish I could tell you “it tasted like chicken”, but I’d be lying. It tasted like jellied eel. On one web-site I came across, jellied eel is described as “the flavour of death itself“, and honestly, that is not being at all melodramatic. If I was being the most positive I could possibly be, all I can muster up is to say that jellied eel is the perfect food on which to use the phrase: “it is an acquired taste”.

I had read that Paul Simpson, the owner of Tubby Isaac’s since 1989, thinks his tenure will be the final chapter in what has thus far been an almost 100 year old story: “I’ll be the last one ever to do this…. The business isn’t what it was years ago, all the eel stalls along Roman Road and Brick Lane – they were here for a long, long time and they’ve closed. It’s a sign of the times.”

Despite my recent brush with jellied eel induced nausea, I found that to be kind of sad. Like the suburb of Carlton in Melbourne Australia, or the Lower East Side of New York, or just about anywhere else where poor Jewish migrants settled at the turn of last century, once those communities established themselves and became wealthier, they moved on and out, to better neighbourhoods and into better careers. Synagogues have been abandoned or converted to other uses, clothes shops and traditional restaurants have been shuttered, and along the way little pieces of history have died.

The mood got to me, and after learning that a can of coke, a banana, two straight espressos and a Mars bar still cannot fully eradicate the after-taste of jellied eel, I decided to mosey on over to Sandy’s Row Synagogue and join in the afternoon prayer service, which I remembered was meant to be starting in a few minutes.

This was the first time I have participated in a Jewish afternoon prayer service since High School. That it should take a bowl of jellied eel to achieve this outcome is one of life’s great ironies. But I was suddenly feeling nostalgic, and I half expected to walk into the synagogue and find nobody there but a few grizzled old men, the last bastions of London’s Jewish East End, who would come over all teary eyed to see a young (OK, young-ish) man entering their venerable old shule, surely one of the last times this would ever happen, they would embrace me warmly and thank me for coming, God bless you, son….

So I was more than a little surprised to discover that on a regular weekday in April 2012, the afternoon prayer service at Sandy’s Row Synagogue was attended mainly by young, 30-somethings in sharp business suits. I was in fact on the older side of most of those present, and I sat quietly in the back, largely unnoticed.

As I left the synagogue after the service I overheard two of the congregants, who I guess must have been heading back to work in their City offices, bantering about option trades and credit derivative swaps. It seems that the rebirth of London’s East End as a residential and business district, presumably accompanied by an influx of upwardly mobile bankers, lawyers and finance-folk, has resulted in a new generation of Jews moving into the area. The great-grandchildren of last century’s rag-traders are now coming home.

This thought appealed to me. It means that there will be a long-term future for beautiful old buildings like Sandy’s Row Synagogue. And it means that maybe, just maybe, in 100 years from now, you will still be able to sample Tubby Isaac’s world famous jellied eels.

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