the former

Canning Town Synagogue

Plaistow, London E13




Some of my Jewish experiences in not such a Jewish area

Susan Napper (formerly Gilbert)

Gilbert Bakers 

Our baker shop in Green Street

I never grew up in a semi-detached house in Ilford, Redbridge, like every other young Jewish person (or so I thought). I was born at Queen Mary's Hospital in Stratford and lived above my parents' baker shop in Green Street, Upton Park, London E.7 and next door to my aunt, uncle and grandparents' fishmongers. We were along the road to West Ham football stadium and Upton Park Station. It was a modern purpose-built parade of maisonettes with shops below. Unusually, my parents did things the other way round. They bought a very nice semi in Redbridge when they got married in 1950 but by the time that I was born in 1957 they had sold the house and moved to Upton Park as a means of buying a business. I know my mother missed her particularly stylish house in Redbridge, but she was a very sensible, practical businesswoman and thought it was for the best. I, in fact, stayed living in the same place until I married in 1981 and moved to Woodford, a few miles away.

There was a strong, small Jewish community in the area, many of whom were in business, although Upton Park (and its associated area of Forest Gate) didn't compare, of course, with what was going on in Redbridge. Other than the many businesses, they were primarily working-class areas and my parents were determined that my brother and I should not miss out by living there and that we should have every opportunity educationally, socially and Jewish-wise. So I had music and elocution lessons and a tutor for the 11+, just in case it was needed! Although it was a non-Jewish area, it wasn't difficult to be Jewish. Yes, the shops were open on Saturdays, but my parents sold bagels and chollas, but also did a wonderful trade of hot cross buns on Good Friday. We had our kosher butcher nearby and I remember them supplying every possible requirement for Pesach.

I went to the local primary school, Elmhurst, with my best friend, who was also Jewish. There were hardly any Jewish children there. I cannot recall coming across any antisemitism there, but we were always aware that we were different. I remember in assembly when they sung the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers (marching on to war), my friend and I silently changed the words to Onwards Jewish Soldiers marching onto peace as we felt more comfortable with that. I remember one year in particular, as an alternative to the nativity play at Christmas, the school accommodated the non-Christian children by putting on an irreligious play. They were certainly all-inclusive.

Fish Shop 

The fish shop next door with Lily and Louis

At Stratford Grammar School there were maybe 30 Jewish students and we had a regular Jewish weekly assembly. It was a very good school academically, my first choice after passing the 11+. I sometimes wonder whether I may have been at an advantage in achieving that by not being in Redbridge. We had a good number of well-respected Jewish senior teachers at the school. Socially, as I got older, I never felt comfortable at school and soon found myself going out of the area to FZY and other Jewish organisations that the area lacked.

As regards Shuls, these were not lacking in the area. We attended Upton Park Shul in Tudor Road E.6. I went there on Shabbos mornings with my elder brother and cousin who lived next door in Green Street. We must have gone regularly, and certainly did, in the years coming up to their Barmitzvahs. Living where we did, the whole family were ardent West Ham fans with season tickets, so I assume the boys went to football in the afternoon. We regularly went to the cheder at Upton Park Shul. Like everyone, we went three times a week. I don't remember that much about it, other than that there were three levels of classes. I was studious and think that at the time I was quite ahead with Hebrew. This didn't work to my advantage in the end because I was too good for the middle class where most of my age were. I was therefore put into the senior class which comprised mainly the Barmitzvah boys who were learning to translate Chumash, phrase by phrase, and soon I found myself drowning in it all. Sadly, I left the classes prematurely. No doubt if I would have been in larger classes in another area I would not have left and given up my Hebrew studies at that time.

However, the Shul where by far my fondest memories belong is Canning Town Shul, which was in Barking Road, London E.13 in the Plaistow area. This was a Federation Synagogue founded in 1901 by amongst others my maternal great-grandparents, Annie and Henry Levenson, together with other families, such as the Granditers. Some of the founder members went on to be founder members of the Wanstead and Woodford Shul when they moved out of the Canning Town area many years later.

Louis & Lily Kaye 
Grandparents, Lily & Louis Kaye, who met in the garden of Canning Town Shul

My grandmother Lily Levenson together with her family lived and were milliners in Barking Road near to the Shul. She and her siblings must have gone to cheder there, but she never spoke to me of this. Lily met my grandfather Louis Kaye in the garden of Canning Town Synagogue on Yom Kippur in either 1919 or 1920 after he came back from the war. My grandparents’ courtship began and my grandmother told me how she had to wait to marry, for her elder sisters to marry first. My grandparents married in 1922 and it remained a real love story. Maybe it was for this reason that the Shul has always held such a special place in my heart.

I can only ever remember Canning Town Shul being open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as most of the members had moved out of the area to Ilford, Woodford and other places. Many continued to pay their membership fees, but the congregation diminished every year. It was a beautiful, old shul with a large ladies’ gallery. In the last few years, however, the upstairs was mainly used for the visiting chazan when he went for a sleep! The ladies would sit in an area downstairs. We would go every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As a child I would sit with my Papa Louis, who was the gubba (warden) in his box. No one minded that I was a girl. As the years went on there were fewer congregants and it was sometimes even difficult to get a minyan. On one occasion, I was sitting in the gubbas' box with my hair tied back and wearing a black leather jacket. The Rabbi came up to me in shock and realised that he had counted me in as the 10th male for a minyan. On another occasion, my cousin, who on that day was in Shul reluctantly, walked out of Shul for it then to be realised that there was no longer a minyan. My grandfather and the Rabbi went running down the road after him. The advantage of such a small congregation was that my brother and cousin as boys growing up were called up several times in the service and had lots of practice.

I remember Yom Kippurs so well. I would go early to Shul with the men. My mother, aunt, grandmother and all my grandmother's sisters and sisters-in-law would all come to Shul later in the morning and reunite. They were all living in different areas. They would all be dressed in their Yomtov outfits and would not stop talking, mainly about what they were wearing. Unfortunately, there was little decorum. The shammas would continually call out "ladies please!" It was truly embarrassing. I think they thought they had a right to talk as much as they liked! They were so happy to be there together.

Breaking the Fast 

Me with my arms round my Papa Louis after breaking the fast

In the afternoon, my Papa Louis would read Haftorah Jonah. Unfortunately, he had spent some time in Norwood Orphanage as a child because his widowed mother, at some stage was too poor to look after him. There he learnt to daven very well and we were all so proud to hear him daven this Haftorah every year. My youngest grandson who was born on a Yom Kippur was named Jonah and thus this brought back many memories for me from my time at Canning Town.

All the family from shul would go to my aunt in Green Street to break the fast, where year in year out we would have the same wonderful fried fish traditional meal (fried by my grandmother in the fish shop below) and discuss our Yom Kippur at Canning Town Shul. Nothing changed. It was all about tradition. One of my great aunts always had to have her Dover sole! Another would receive a telephone call from her son at the same time every year asking how she had fasted. It would make us children giggle.

Seder nights were also very special and we spent them too at my aunt and uncle next door above the fishmongers. Papa Louis always led the Seder. It was all in Hebrew. His time spent in Norwood Orphanage prepared him very well for this. I would look to him with adoration. When it got to the songs, we would all join in with great exuberance with our various tunes. I remember my aunt saying to me ‘When you’re grown up, we can all come to you for Seders and to break the fast’. And when I had my own house, they all did this for many years. I still use much of the same china and tablecloths from those days.

As regards Canning Town Shul, I'm not sure of the exact year that the Shul closed its doors. They just could not go on any longer. However, it officially was wound up in 1978. I have a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Machzor which was presented to me in memory of my great-grandparents as founders of the Shul and Ladies Guild in 1901. I use that book now every year in Woodford Forest Shul.

These are just a few of my special early Jewish memories but I remember them like yesterday.

Susan Napper © 2021

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Page created: 15 February 2021
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