I’ve recently discovered that some of my forefathers came from the shtetl of Sadowne, in Poland. A great-great aunt, Sarah Appelbaum, was apparently a midwife and teacher in Sadowne, helping to maintain the health and morals of the community.
Jewish shtetl society was hierarchical. At the peak were a few wealthy estate managers and successful merchants. Most people were poor, eking out an existence as innkeepers, shoemakers or peddlers. Yet the community was tight-knit; all were bound by their common faith and culture. Everyone knew everybody’s business and watched out for each other. Women leaders would deliver food parcels to widows, the sick or those who had fallen on hard times. Those who abided by the religious rules and knew their place could live in security.
Fleeing West, 1900s
The pogroms of late-19th-century eastern Europe tore through the fabric of shtetl life. Jews in their tens of thousands escaped to make the arduous journey to Europe or the USA. They broke from the past and left their close community behind.
On arrival, the refugees needed to recreate some sense of belonging and heim. The East End became home to the London shtetl. The smell of freshly baked bagels wafted from the Jewish bakeries, alongside shops selling gefilte fish, wurst and all manner of pickled vegetables. Cultural institutions grew up, with Jewish bookshops, Yiddish theatre and music hall as well as the synagogues and cheders for passing on religious traditions.
Fleeing West, 2000s
In recent times, Syrians have also come from close-knit communities, where everyone knew their neighbours and extended family lived nearby. But in the UK, relatively few have been allowed entry owing to restrictive government policies. Families I know are divided. Sons and daughters are strewn across the globe, some in Germany, others in Sweden, while many loved ones remain in Syria. For these refugees, being reunited with their relatives appears a distant dream.
Syrians are doing their best to recreate their culture and contribute to ours. In Brighton and Hove, you can enjoy great kibbeh, snack on falafel or feast on mezze. Or treat yourself to traditional Syrian spiced pistachio cookies from the Teba sweet shop. Worshippers gather at the mosques and churches around the city. The Sussex Syrian Community group supports people together as they attempt to establish lives, homes and businesses here. But they don’t have the comfort of a large community to ease their integration into British life.
Knowing the locals
People starting anew want to get to know local people, but it’s not easy. The population in Brighton and Hove is quite transient. Many people are out at work all day and never mix with their neighbours.
That clearly changed during the pandemic. Syrians friends in my reading group told me that before the first lockdown in March, many had no contact with their neighbours. For some, street WhatsApp groups for mutual support helped them to develop friendly relationships in their area. I hope that the flurry of community feeling and mutual aid survives longer than Covid-19 and helps my Syrian friends to feel more at home here.