Growing up west

A musical traces the history of the Jewish `WestEnders'. David Benedict reports
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Everyone knows about the Jews of the East End, but how about the "WestEnders"? According to the oral history project undertaken by the London Museum of Jewish Life and Gerry Black's massively detailed book of reminiscences, Living Up West, there's an entire unknown history. It has now become a hugely successful exhibition which in turn has led to the creation of a celebratory musical revue, How The West End Was Won.

"I turned it into a large-scale community show," says Judi Herman, the revue's director. She's not exaggerating. There's a cast of 25, many of whom are descended from the original WestEnders.

The first thing she focused on was the North-South divide, but we're not talking about the Thames. "The people who lived north of Oxford Street considered people who lived south of it to be beneath them. Those that lived south thought those who lived north stuck up and snooty. Southerners didn't even marry North. It was like marrying out."

Herman came up with the neat idea of setting the show on a Monopoly board, but much of the action takes place in Fitzrovia where the centre of Jewish life was the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, on the corner of Windmill Street. It was originally run by Judah Kleinfeld and then by his daughter, Annie, and her husband, Charlie Allchild. Their daughter Sally Fiber was one of the prime movers behind the project.

"The Fitzroy was renowned for its charity work. The ceiling money box, or `Pennies from Heaven' as it became known, was my grandfather's brainchild. People threw money wrapped in silver paper which had a dart in it which then stuck in the ceiling. They were removed once a year and the collection funded an annual outing to the country for the local children. Annie made a ruling right from the start that these were for children of every race and creed, and 500 were taken annually."

Several pubs served a large Jewish clientele. The upstairs room at The Blue Posts served kosher food on Passover night.

Others recall the thriving Yiddish Theatre between the wars at places like the Scala and the Garrick. "Morris Moscovitch from America came and performed classical plays, even Shakespeare, in Yiddish." After much digging around in the British Library, Judy Herman unearthed the Yiddish Version of The Merchant of Venice, which was retitled (of course) Shylock. Her production gives audiences the unique opportunity of hearing the Yiddish and English versions simultaneously from two Portias and two Shylocks.

The show is awash with the details of lives long-thought lost. The wedding reception at which 600 pigeons were served, only to discover to everyone's horror that pigeon wasn't kosher; and the West Central Jewish Girls Club and its redoubtable leader Lily Montague. There's even the story of enlisting a Soho prostitute to turn on the lights on the Sabbath.

If even a small percentage ofJudy Herman's quirky energy has infused her cast, the show will probably continue to enjoy its current success. She is keen to approach the British Council. "It's just the sort of thing they would be interested in, isn't it?" As a nice Jewish boy, who am I to disagree?

`How The West Was Won', The Stern Hall, West London Synagogue, 33 Seymour Place, W1 (081-866 0104), Sunday at 3pm & 7.30pm; and the Cockpit Theatre (071-402 5081), 5 March, 3pm & 7.30pm