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New city migrants faced up to violence and hard work

Founders of the first Talmud Torah Jewish religious school in Sheffield
Founders of the first Talmud Torah Jewish religious school in Sheffield

1910 was coronation year. Every schoolchild in Sheffield was given a medal to mark the accession of King George V and Queen Mary. 

A photograph shown here was taken outside the Talmud Torah, the Hebrew school in Paradise Square that opened in 1904. It shows 30 boys dressed in their best with medals proudly pinned on. Girls were taught separately.

Paradise Square, Sheffield as it looks today

Paradise Square, Sheffield as it looks today

A century ago, each evening, gangs of lads waited in the grimy streets behind Sheffield cathedral, ready to attack the ‘Jewboys’ as they left their Hebrew classes at 8.30 pm on the dot.

This was just one of the hazards that greeted these ragged, first generation immigrant children as they settled into Sheffield life – though they gave as good as they got. As my father would say, in those days “fighting was the game”.

The earliest classes were held in a room over a pork butcher’s shop in West Bar. The original register still survives. They moved, perhaps unsurprisingly, because of a “bad smelling which came from the floor of the classroom”.

Children were required to attend Talmud Torah every day after regular school, plus Saturdays and Sundays. For 31 years the headmaster was the strict S H Finklestone.

The Talmud TorahHebrew school in Paradise Square that opened in 1904, displaying photographs of the new king and queen

The Talmud TorahHebrew school in Paradise Square that opened in 1904, displaying photographs of the new king and queen

He kept order by walking up and down the classroom between the desks, his arms behind his back Duke of Edinburgh style, clasping a cane. As he repeated his favourite phrase, “Again der same. Again der same”, in a thick Yiddish accent, pupils recited in unison the lesson that had been dinned into them. Anyone not paying attention received a sharp prod with the cane.

The rote learning worked, however, and by the time boys reached bar mitzvah age of 13, they were word perfect in Hebrew and could play their part in synagogue services. Bar mitzvah was also when they got their first pair of long trousers.

Aaron Chester, born in 1908, was the fat boy of the school, a luckless classmate of my father’s. Aaron’s mother was convinced that her naturally plump son could earn the family a fortune by becoming the fattest boy in the world, to be displayed as a freak at travelling fairs or circuses.

She had heard that bananas were a guaranteed way of putting on weight, and so fed him on a calorific diet of which bananas formed the main constituent.  She cultivated his curls, which flowed to his shoulders, and dressed him in a blue velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with a lace collar.

Founders of the first Talmud Torah Jewish religious school in Sheffield

Founders of the first Talmud Torah Jewish religious school in Sheffield

She hauled him around fairgrounds to see if there was any interest in hiring him out. Aaron just grew fatter and unhappier but not a single circus showed any interest and he never achieved the celebrity his mother dreamed of.

On Sunday mornings, members of the Hebrew Education Board had a habit of dropping in at the Talmud Torah to conduct random spot tests to see if the teachers were doing their job properly – the pupils thought they were the ones being tested.

The secretary, Levi Abrahams, sat at a desk, waiting to be paid as children arrived at 10am. The price of tuition was a shilling a week, although many of the poorer youngsters went free. Even so, it was a struggle to maintain attendance and a bait was offered of free cinema visits to encourage reluctant pupils.

Several teachers were almost destitute, refugees from Eastern Europe, their knowledge of Hebrew and Scriptures their only marketable asset. With limited language skills, they relied on the cane for discipline but their general air of being down at heel made them ripe targets for schoolboy cruelty.

Royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary, passing through Owler Lane, 1919

Royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary, passing through Owler Lane, 1919

Mr Davison, a particularly irascible individual, tied up his trousers with a handkerchief instead of a belt.

One Sunday, gesticulating in despair at his pupils’ general doziness, he waved his arms around so energetically that the handkerchief came undone and his trousers fell down. The laughter could be heard several streets away.

*Professor Judy Simons was born and brought up Sheffield. She was Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University and editor of Sheffield Jewish Journal. She is writing a book on her Sheffield heritage

Coronation celebrations in Acorn Street, Shalesmoor

Coronation celebrations in Acorn Street, Shalesmoor