A gloriously evocative, and often very funny, collection of stories centred on an iconic East End street
Hessel Street. What an image the name conjures up, with its shops, its market, its cast of characters – the heart of the old Jewish East End. My mother recounted how, as a girl, one of her regular tasks was to take one of the chickens my grandfather kept in the backyard to a shochet in Hessel Street for slaughter and return home with the corpse.
Truly a vanished world.
It is a world a collection of short stories by Eric Levene conjures gloriously back to life. Feinstein’s Theory of Relatives and other Hessel Street stories, with its wonderfully apt title, introduces us to an array of memorable characters, many of whom recur throughout the book.
We are in the late 1940s and 1950s. Take it From Here and Ray’s a Laugh are on the radio. And in Hessel Street, Yoseler the Philosopher is dispensing advice, inspired by his muses Moshe die Mensch von Munchen and Shlomo Schon von Bonn.
Doris Feldman and Hannah Woolf, doyennes of the yachnahs, are spreading gossip while enjoining their eager listeners not to repeat a word of it. Abe and Sid are ensconced in the Joe Lyons in Whitechapel Road, never quite sure whether that is nearer their Hessel Street homes than the Lyons at Aldgate. Joe Gorminsky is watching the world from his butchers shop and leading the street’s traders. Mendel the newsagent contemplates leaving his wife, only people would talk. But they talked anyway, so he might as well have moved out.
And all around, people are oigavulting and oivayzmeering. Yiddish words and phrases are in common use, but not so much as to put off any readers who are Yiddish-impaired. Eric Levene
Eric Levene’s introduction alone is a laugh out loud essay. His stories range from the humorous – and they are very humorous – to the slightly sinister, to the whimsical, as in the trial of a shochet by three chickens intent on avenging their slaughtered sisters, to the tribulations of everyday life, as in the contortions a set of parents goes through in compiling a list of wedding guests.
Familiar references abound – Florry Greenberg’s cookery book (one of my mother’s cookery bibles), the Brady Club, Mazin’s booksellers, Kossoff’s bakers, and many more.
I ended up feeling I knew these people of old. I was almost tempted to believe that two Jewish cooks had reached the summit of Everest ahead of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. And I had no doubt at all about the well-known slogan “Borscht is best”. There are fights, there are dreams, there are not so happy marriages, there is all human life, intermixed with the author’s wry observations on what his characters are up to or what they are saying.
This is a highly entertaining and evocative collection. I loved it. Eric Levene lived in Hessel Street in the 1940s and 50s. His grandfather – zayda – was a butcher and poulterer there. His memories of life at that time clearly remain strong. If I had one bone to pick it would be that I spell beigel beigel, not baigel. But, hey, I’m not going to start a broigus about that. As long as neither of us goes for bagel.
Feinstein’s Theory of Relatives and other Hessel Street stories. By Eric Levene.ISBN 9781973230892. Paperback £8.99. Available from Amazon, including for Kindle. Click here for details.