Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld
Jew Boy is a novel about poverty and politics in the tumultuous world of London’s Jewish East End in the 1930s, where boxers mixed with anarchist and communists, and Yiddish actors and poets rubbed shoulders with gamblers and gangsters. All were united in their hatred of fascism and prepared to use force when necessary to defeat it. Yet of equal interest for the contemporary reader is the novel’s exploration of the personal lives and thwarted aspirations of young people at this time, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Though the novel opens by introducing us to Dave and then Alec (subsequently the main protagonist), by the end it is their erstwhile lover Olive who is the strongest character – a fact remarked upon by reviewers at the time. Dave is venal, sexually predatory, but ultimately conformist, whereas Alec is intellectually alert and kind-hearted, but suffers from a lack of familial security – which he later finds with Olive. By the end Alec has discovered his voice and mission in revolutionary politics, and this new-found passion sweeps the novel to its conclusion.
The world portrayed here is truly unremitting. The factory scenes are brilliantly done, bringing to life the reality of sweatshops and sweated labour, and vividly portraying the exhaustion produced by long hours, unforgiving deadlines and cut-throat competition. It was the authenticity of these scenes which won the praise of reviewers when first published. ‘The reality of the thing is incontestable,’ Marie Crosbie wrote in John O’London’s Weekly. In The Daily Telegraph, James Hilton reviewed it ahead of the latest novel by Graham Greene, England Made Me, clearly preferring Blumenfeld’s keen intelligence, sense of humour and ‘flashing anger’. Time And Tide noted that, ‘Jew Boy does for Whitechapel what Love On The Dole has done for Manchester and Salford, and moreover does it as well, if not even better.’
Critics praised the warmth and colour of the scenes from Jewish life which were new to them – the synagogue wedding, the rituals of Yom Kippur, the concert evenings, the cafes and restaurants, street markets – even if at times the political message seemed too assertive for middlebrow Britain. Jew Boy still retains a vivid sense of life in tumult, providing a testimony to a unique time and place that is now firmly embedded in London’s volatile history.