London Fictions (edited by Jerry White & Andrew Whitehead, Five Leaves, 2013)) is a book about London, real and imagined. Within this anthology two dozen contemporary writers, from Cathi Unsworth to Courttia Newland, reflect on some of the novelists and the novels that have helped define the modern city, from George Gissing to Zadie Smith, Hangover Square to Brick Lane. This is a book about East End boys and West End girls, bed-sit land and dockland, the homeless and the homesick, immigrants and emigrants. All human life is here, high-minded Hampstead and boozy Fitzrovia, the Jewish East End, intellectual Bloomsbury and Chinese Limehouse, Black London, Asian London, Irish London, Gay London.
London Fictions includes an essay by Rachel Lichtenstein on Simon Blumenfeld’s 1935 controversial novel Jew Boy.
When Jew Boy was first published in 1935 it caused a sensation. There was an enormous amount of controversy about and interest in the book, partly because of its deliberately provocative title and forceful political message but predominately for its gritty depiction of working-class Jewish life in Whitechapel. Back then the majority of the population knew little about the religious practises and daily lives of the poverty stricken Jewish community who occupied much of the area. The Jewish East End was an entirely closed world to outsiders, and one which had not been written about in British fiction since Israel Zangwill published his bestselling novel back in 1892, Children of the Ghetto. It was a revelation to people to learn about the place and its inhabitants through reading Jew Boy. They were intrigued by the detailed descriptions of the Jewish festivals and celebrations. Amazed to learn about the complex network of self-supporting interconnected Jewish societies, clubs, theatres and institutions. Shocked to hear of the terrible working conditions in the tailoring sweatshops where thousands toiled up to eighteen hours a day. Jew Boy became an instant bestseller, which was widely reviewed and highly praised. For most readers it provided a window into an unfamiliar and exotic milieu.
For Simon Blumenfeld there was nothing mysterious or strange about the pre-war Jewish East End. It was a place he knew intimately and many elements of Jew Boy are undoubtedly autobiographical. Much like Alec, the protagonist of his novel, Blumenfeld was a second-generation immigrant Jew who had been born and raised in Whitechapel. He was a bright student, who dreamt of becoming a writer but like most young Jewish men living there during this period, his career choices were severely restricted by the depressed economic environment around him. After winning a coveted scholarship to the local grammar school Blumenfeld had to leave before completing his studies to help provide for the family. His first job was as a cap-maker, (like his father) then later he became a presser, in the sweatshops he portrays so vividly in Jew Boy.