I recently rediscovered an account by Bill Fishman of how the Jewish anarchists in the East End caused a riot during Yom Kippur over 100 years ago.
It took place outside the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, what is now the Brick Lane Mosque.
Young anti-religious militants were to blame for one annual fracas. It was occasioned by the Anarchist balls, deliberately held on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, which even marginal Jews respect. J. L. Fine was a regular observer of the tragi-comedy of young politicals who, flaunting their contempt for tradition, marched in column to the Spitalfields Great Synagogue (Machzikei Ha Lath) in Brick Lane, smoking or brandishing ham sandwiches as gestures of defiance and rejection of their creed. The service over, angry worshippers, sometimes in full regalia, swept out and attacked the scoffers with any weapon they could seize, while the local people gazed dumbfounded at the antics of the crazy foreigners. Fine also recalls a later incident when the Assembly Hall, paid for by Lord Rothschild as a centre for worship at High Holidays for poor Jews sponsored by the Jewish Board of Guardians, was the subject of a bomb hoax. The police received a warning that Anarchists had planned to blow up Rothschild at the service. All incoming congregants were searched and the hall cleared. There was no bomb.
In 1904, the annual affair provoked a full-scale riot in Spitalfields. The historian Rollin, then a Social Democrat, and Sam Dreen were both involved. In premises once used by Jacob Adler and his troupe, the Socialists had established a Volkskuche (People’s Restaurant), which supplied cheap meals and was, therefore, heavily patronised. Prices, such as bread, a penny a piece, soup threepence a plate, sixpence for soup with meat, were half those charged by local private restaurateurs, who naturally resented this `unfair’ competition. Rollin suggests that, under the guise of protecting religion, the latter had prepared an attack on the Volkskuche on Yom Kippur, led by hired thugs. The East London Observer reported what followed:
Thousands of Jews were walking along the streets, when they were met by a body of Socialist Jews, who had driven a van containing food along the streets. All the Orthodox Jews were fasting and they at once resented this unseemly display. The Socialists being driven into their club responded by throwing glass bottles out of the windows. Several cases of minor injury occurred and the disorder thus started to spread quickly. Within half an hour the whole area round Princelet Street was in a state of great agitation. Excited groups of Orthodox Jews were parading the streets threatening the Socialists with dire penalties for their insults and stones were thrown at the home of prominent Socialists.
.. . It is alleged that the Socialists pelted a Synagogue which stands adjacent to their club, and that they had arranged a concert for the day of fasting – invitations to which they had sent to the principal Rabbis!
Rollin presents a different tale:
I was making my way towards the Club with a young woman comrade in Princelet Street, where a threatening crowd had gathered. As we approached some men in front sprang at the girl like tigers, threw her to the ground and started beating her, whilst I was hurled against the wall and pinned there. The Club members, hearing our cries, rushed to our defence and brought us in. The girl was torn and bleeding and laid semi-conscious on the floor … We sent a messenger begging help from the Anarchists, who were holding their ball in a hall at Rhondda Grove, Bow.
This brought Sam Dreen on the scene. He and a score of young bloods jumped a tram to Gardiners Corner, and rushed up Brick Lane in time to relieve the beleaguered Socialists. They apparently beat off the invaders, as a large force of police arrived and quickly dispersed the crowd, arresting some men and boys in the process.
The magistrates attributed the cause of the disturbance to the so-called orthodox. Of the eight brought up for trial, two Socialists who declared that, being non-religious, they could not observe Yom Kippur, were summarily discharged; and the bench commented that it was deplorable `that a class of persons who for centuries had been distinguished as the victims of the fiercest persecutions should, when in the one free country of the world, turn upon those who disagreed with them on religious points, their own co-religionists, and stone and persecute them’.
East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William J Fishman, p259-261, Duckworth, 1975