This talk, illustrated with song, will examine the abundance of Yiddish kupletn (rhyming couplets) written by Jewish immigrant songwriters and poets in pre-first world war London. These protest hymns, music-hall songs and satirical verse, until now hidden in archives, tell tales that expand and nuance our knowledge of immigrant history. They tell of an immigrant culture in flux, anglicising to local British norms yet containing echoes of a transnational Yiddish-speaking world. They tell of the attempts to use poetry as a strategy for disseminating revolutionary socialist ideas and supporting union action. They tell of the changing form of sexual relationships, and the problems of marital disharmony and abuse. They show how immigrants grappled with modernising religious practice. As an accessible popular culture, they tell these stories with humour, with intensity, and full of passion. This talk will give an overview of these key ideas, illustrating theoretical and historical points with engaging poetic and musical examples.
Vivi Lachs is a historian, Yiddishist and performer, and currently associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. She completed her doctoral degree in 2016 under the supervision of the historian, the late David Cesarani. As a development of her doctoral thesis, her book Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914 was published by Wayne State University Press earlier this year. As well as continued academic work, Vivi performs Yiddish song and records with the bands Klezmer Klub (Whitechapel, mayn Vaytshepl)and Katsha’nes (Don’t Ask Silly Questions). She runs musical historical tours of the Jewish East End and has established the Great Yiddish Parade bringing Yiddish songs of protest and union action from the 1890s back onto the streets of London.