Brick Lane, home of our fathers

Diana Hinds looks at a joint educational project that is encouraging Je wish and Bangladeshi schoolchildren to trace their common heritage in the East End
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The Independent Online
Stuart Sidloff, 13, a pupil at the King Solomon High School in Barkingside, Essex, is in no doubt as to why his Jewish ancestors moved from the heart of the East End of London to the suburbs. "As they got richer, they started getting more jobs, an d so they moved away from that smelly old place to nice clean places like Gants Hill," he tells Foridul Islam, 15, from Daneford School near Brick Lane in the East End.

The boys are taking part in a project organised by the two schools - one an all-Jewish, voluntary-aided school established just over a year ago, the other a boys' comprehensive, 99 per cent Bangladeshi - to look at their communities' shared history: immigration to this country and the building of a new life in the East End.

Foridul Islam believes Brick Lane is a more "colourful" place thanks to the influence of Asian culture. Stuart Sidloff agrees it is "much richer and much cleaner than when we were around", but says he would not want to live there himself. "I like to staywhere there are lots of Jews."

This is the first time pupils from the two schools have met. Reserved with each other, but articulate about their experiences, they sit in small groups to answer a sheet of questions about how and why their families settled here. For the Jewish pupils the project began as part of a two-year Bnei Mitzvah programme, teaching them about Jewish life. Alex Pomson, head of Jewish studies, wanted them first to research their own family histories.

"Most of the children can trace their grandparents, or great-grandparents, to the East End, but most had never been back there. Young people tend not to ask questions about the past, but I wanted to give them a sense of where they came from, a sense thateach has a personal history, at a time when they are becoming responsible members of the Jewish community."

Pupils have set up interviews with their grandparents, and traced family trees. Some have visited the East End looking for evidence of Jewish settlement, such as niches on door posts to hold Jewish scrolls. The school has also worked with a Jewish organisation, Springboard, which encourages old people to share their memories, to mount a fascinating exhibition of photographs.

Through Springboard, Dr Pomson heard that Daneford School was also researching the Brick Lane area, and leapt at the chance to collaborate. "It was an opportunity to broaden their horizons, to make them see that their community's history is not unique but is paralleled by other groups."

This is particularly important, he believes, for pupils in an all-Jewish school in a predominantly white area. The perspective of the Daneford boys - who are more streetwise and "very wary", according to Andrew Goodman, head of year 10 - is rather different. "This is a group of boys with big aspirations," he says. "I think the project will reinforce their attitude that Brick Lane is a place to get out of and not to come in to."

With help from LinkAge, an organisation that tries to bring generations together, and funding from City Challenge, they have been gathering historical material from the area, interviewing local traders, taking and developing photographs.

"I'd always thought Brick Lane was such a boring place - so many Bengali people and so cramped," says Delwar Hussain, 15. "Doing this work has made me more aware. I just know I don't want to live there in the future. I want to live in Paris or New York and work in the media."

Emdadr Robb, 15, says the project has given him "a sense of belonging, of heritage. You know that you weren't the only one who went through that and it makes you feel better."

Mr Goodman says that he expected the Jewish children to react "with horror" at seeing Brick Lane for the first time. But if this is the case, they are too polite to say so.

"It was very busy," says one girl.

"It seemed like the road was going on and on," another comments.

Pat Stanton, a governor at King Solomon who also works with elderly people through Jewish Care, reminds them that many of the older generation are sorry to have left the area. "They say there was a very strong community and that they were never isolated in the way they are now."

But the main lesson of the afternoon seems to be that people move on. "Perhaps the beauty of Brick Lane is that it's so transitory," suggests Mr Goodman. "In 60 years' time there'll be another community there."