Islington’s ‘marvellous’ Jewish heritage lives on in walks and words

Historic picture of North London Synagogue

Historic picture of North London Synagogue - Credit: Archant

When members of the Jewish community moved out of the cramped East End and into Islington in the 18th and 19th centuries some said “Heichner Fenster”: a Yiddish term which, in German dialect, means tall window.

How the synagogue looked in 1950

How the synagogue looked in 1950 - Credit: Archant

Islington was spacious and gave the “overspill” from East London room to breath and grow.

It became one of the largest Jewish communities in England, and though the population has since dwindled, the diaspora’s legacy is visible on plaques, pot holes and street coroners across the borough.

This inspired Rabbi Mendy Korer, of the charity Chabad Lubavitch Islington (CBI), to start leading his sell-out Jewish Islington Walking Tour a few years ago.

“It’s really fun,” he said. “When you’re walking around the streets of Islington you have all these different areas and could walk past without noticing all the details of them.

Rabbi Mendy Korer on stage. Picture: Siorna Ashby

Rabbi Mendy Korer on stage. Picture: Siorna Ashby - Credit: Archant

“On the one hand there is the place we live in, a modern part of London. But on the other hand there is so much history.

“At one point 5 per cent of the entire Jewish population in the UK lived in Islington.

Most Read

“When you go on this tour you will learn about the North London Synagogue, the two prime ministers that were born in Islington, famous architects, villains and simple working people.

“You will gain an appreciation of the space we live in.

“But I’ll leave it to people to figure out who the Prime Ministers were,” he joked.

One stop on the tour is a building in Highbury New Park, where there is a blue plaque for David Gestetner, an award-winning inventor who created the stencil duplicator, which predated the photocopier.

“It’s about the immigrants the come through the borough,” said Rabbi Mendy.

“There have been numerous groups of people who have come to live in the borough, who either stayed of kept moving on, and [they] have all left their mark.

“For example, there was one company that delivered coal to people’s homes and when you walk through the streets and see the coal manholes, on one of them you can see its got a Jewish person’s name on it.”

A key component of the borough’s Jewish heritage was the North London Synagogue

The community raised £16,000 to “pay off the cost of the building”, which opened in 1868.

It was Ashkenazi Orthodox and stood in John Street West, which is now Lofting Road, in Canonbury. But the “marvellous” site closed due to a decline in membership in 1958 – it was awarded a green plaque by the council in 2015.

There was also another synagogue at 59 Poets Road, also in Canonbury, which was open between 1958 to 1969.

“Since they closed there has not been anything in the area,” said Rabbi Mendy. “And Jewish people locally have had to move out of the borough to meet their religious and cultural needs.”

“We [Chabad Lubavitch Islington] have been able to provide that locally, however we do not yet have a community centre [in Islington] – we need that space.”

He cited weekly morning services on Shabbat, also known as Sabbath, where Jewish people rest every Saturday; as well as the annual Passover event in April as ways Chabad is “rebuilding” the community feel.

“There was an elderly gentleman that just past away a couple of months ago,” he said. “Raymond Harris.

“He lived in Islington pretty much his entire life and his grandfather grew up here as well. He was someone who was so attached to the local community and had so much history –he was one of those last links to the whole, larger community, that used to be here.”

He explained how Mr Harris has stayed when many others left. And when Rabbi Mendy and his wife, Hadasa, founded CBI in 2011, Mr Harris was of the first to get involved. The Rabbi said this epitomises the Jewish tradition of rebuilding.

“Raymond described his childhood,” he said. “Walking back from school, there was a greengrocer on the corner of Wallis Road, just off Balls Pond Road. And she [the greengrocer] always gave fruit to each kid. “There was this real community feel and it’s such a lovely history that was here – to be able to create that feeling inside a big city is something so beautiful.”

The next Jewish Islington Walking tour that hasn’t sold out is on February 24.