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Jew Boy Review: Communism and protest in ’30s East London

by J. C. Greenway
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Jew Boy review
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I have been looking forward to this week’s prompt for Nonfiction November. Over to this week’s host, Julz at Julz Reads:

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

If you have read (or plan to read!) my latest nonfiction recommendation, We Fight Fascists by Daniel Sonabend, then a perfect accompaniment would be Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy. Written in 1935, Jewish East London, with its clubs, workshops and street life, is as engaging a character as any other in the story. Although set before the Second World War and before the 43 Group started, both walk the same streets, delving deep into Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Gardiner’s Corner and Mile End, showing the reader this lively ‘heartland’ of Jewish East London. I particularly love my copy of this book, which features a detail from the old A to Z of East London.

As Jew Boy opens, 23-year-old Alec is living at home, working in a local tailor’s workshop, dodging his mother’s anger and his boss’s side-eyeing, while longing for the escape that 7 o’clock brings. Within a few chapters he has moved out and work is more precarious. Politics is all around and thousands of Jews plan to march to Hyde Park in protest at events in Germany. Even Alec’s boss is fired up by the show of solidarity, exclaiming ‘It’s a great thing to be a Jew.’ That support doesn’t extend to allowing his workers to down tools though, this refusal showing a comic touch that Blumenfeld uses throughout the book.

At the park, Alec bumps into an old friend Sam, back from seven years in America having decided ‘rather than starve amongst strangers, I’d come home and starve in good company amongst my pals.’ Alec’s other friend Dave is a total rogue, picking up a housemaid – Olive – and keeping her out so late she loses her job and her roof, before bringing her to Alec’s place as a refuge. Dave then gets Olive a job with his unsuspecting mother, which causes even more trouble for everyone.

What struck me when I first read Jew Boy is how modern Alec, Sam, Olive and Dave felt. Trying to find space in London, going out, meeting people, navigating the intersections between different birthplaces, backgrounds and religions, really felt no different to me and my friends in East London 70 years later. Alec constantly searches for fulfilling entertainment that matches his budget, enjoying concerts at the Workers’ Circle and playing his records until they wear out, while Sam prefers idling in billiards clubs. Alec is searching for love, but with more sincerity than Dave’s methods. He is a bit of a romantic, quoting the Song of Songs to himself after one kiss, wanting to settle down – his mother lamenting that he’s at the age of 23! – but knowing he can’t afford it. While in work he manages to retain a sense of deadpan optimism:

Maybe something would turn up. Perhaps the Messiah would come.

Whether cinema or music or books, Alec knows what he likes and what he doesn’t. And just like me and my pals, he loves a good rant. Alec doesn’t see why he should be cut off from music and beauty – all the things that make life worth living – because of money or position. Bohemian London he finds just as fake as we did its hipster descendants, with the friend who has made it to Oxford and become a poet loving Alec’s authenticity, but not his left-wing takedown of nationalism, not sparing Zionism. The sister of a girlfriend – Sarah – now lives in the suburbs and has such a horror of Whitechapel and what it represents that Alec can’t resist tormenting her, via the medium of music. After crossing paths with Olive again, they move in together, to a bedsit life where ‘dreams weren’t enough.’ And after Alec starts a strike, he is first to be sacked when the next slack period comes.

Although things haven’t been going great, it is when Alec is laid off that his and Olive’s struggles really begin. There are similarities with Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood in the pull between the desire for sexual experience and wanting doing the right thing by someone. The women of Jew Boy are all well-written, believable characters, from Alec’s mother wanting some freedom to Sarah letting Alec down gently. Olive in particular is strong and independent, more sexually experienced than Alec and unfazed by the change of profession that losing her job causes. You maybe wouldn’t expect to find a positive ‘s.ex work is work’ message in a book from 1935, but here it is. When she later realises she is pregnant, Olive makes her choices alone, completely pragmatically. The approaching winter and Christmas make unemployment seem worse and firebrand Alec gets the fight knocked out of him in the queues at the Labour Exchange, as did George Garrett. Casting around for something to do, it becomes clear that nothing from running a market stall to driving a cab offers him a decent wage. The deck is always stacked against the workers.

Poverty makes Alec feel his outsider status more, cast out from even the small comforts that his wages allowed for, he feels caught between two societies. Memories of his Ukrainian father and the home-cooking at the Odessa Café only provide a momentary connection, while his politics cause further alienation from some Jewish circles.

No! He couldn’t find a place here either, not even in Whitechapel where he was born… without moorings, he just didn’t belong. Elspeth’s words cut through his mind – ‘You and your people are only guests here.’ That was true, too. She, or Olive, could walk straight down any street with her head in the air, without any fear, but he had always to keep his eyes skinned in case someone was waiting around the corner to throw bricks.

At Speakers Corner, Alec meets a National Unemployed Workers’ Movement activist, a Black American Communist called Jo-Jo. With Jo-Jo’s appearance, the language and mores of the 1930s are more on display. Jo-Jo is referred to as a ‘negro’ throughout and his accent rendered phonetically (although this also happens for some of the stronger Cockney speakers.) When Alec visits his home, Jo-Jo’s children are described with words that would have been familiar at the time – and which Boris Johnson still uses – but which may jolt the modern reader. Jo-Jo is a leader in the group, has been to Moscow and tells Alec of a level of persecution that he hadn’t previously considered, opening his eyes to a more intersectional view of the struggle. He inspires Alec to ask the Soviet Embassy about returning ‘home,’ but when that doesn’t work out – probably for the best, given what was happening in Ukraine then – Jo-Jo’s treatment by the police at a protest gets the fire back into Alec.

Jew Boy was Simon Blumenfeld’s first novel. A lifelong Marxist, he later wrote a long-running column for The Stage, and there is a real ‘nothing is too good for the working class’ mentality that shines through this story. As Sam Selvon does for West London 20 years later, so Blumenfeld – being a Whitechapel lad himself – vividly recreates the streets and the life of this area when it was the centre of Jewish life in London and at a moment just before the vibrancy of that life would be torn out of many other European cities by the Nazis. It is the perfect pairing for We Fight Fascists – a reminder that Jews and the Left have long been comrades in the fight against fascism – and I recommend both to everyone.

Nonfiction November 2020

Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy is my book pairing for Nonfiction November. What nonfiction have you been reading this month and are there any novels that match with your choices? Let me know in the comments below!


Poverty map of the Old Nichol slum, 1889, Charles Booth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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