Queen Mary University of London’s ‘The great Yiddish parade’

Queen Mary University of London’s ‘The great Yiddish parade’

Queen Mary University of London’s ‘The great Yiddish parade’

By Dr Nadia Valman, reader in English Literature at Queen Mary University of London

We asked Dr Nadia Valman to give us some insider knowledge on organising an immersive street performance. She explains how her recreated Victorian protest march connected attendees and passers-by with Yiddish protest songs and the practicalities involved in making it happen.  

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

The Great Yiddish Parade was a re-enactment of a protest march held in Whitechapel in 1889 when Jewish immigrant tailors demanded an end to exploitative labour conditions in the East End of London. At this time, East End workers in a number of trades were campaigning with increasing success for better working conditions. We aimed to bring this little-known history to new audiences through lively musical and textual performance.

The event drew on research on the historical, cultural and musical context by Dr Nadia Valman (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Vivi Lachs (Royal Holloway University of London), which was used to design the re-enactment using music and writing from the period. A choir of ten singers and a band of ten musicians dressed as Victorian workers performed Yiddish protest songs composed and sung during the 1880s in London, and members of the company declaimed speeches adapted from 1880s journalism and political writing on unemployment, sexual harassment of women workers, anarchism and socialism. The speeches highlighted similarities between campaigns of the late-Victorian period and current social and political concerns. The event was at capacity for the street spaces: 50 people attended, with a further 150 participating along the route.

In the fortnight prior to the Parade, we also ran workshops for years 7 and 8 in three east London schools. A total of 90 students learned about the history of protest in Victorian east London, a Yiddish protest song from the 1880s, and designed their own slogans, banners and chants for a Victorian protest.

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event?

The use of music and costume attracted a great deal of attention, so that many passers-by noticed and took part in the event as well as those who had booked to attend. Creating a spectacle in a public street meant that we attracted a wide and diverse audience.

The route followed the original route of the march, which many participants experienced as powerfully evocative as much of the Victorian urban landscape remains.

During the parade, singers handed out song sheets with the lyrics and information about the songs to passers-by so that they could join in if they wished. We also talked to members of the public about the parade.

What were the main challenges you encountered or what, if anything did not work well as you hoped?

An outdoor event in a public space poses particular challenges. In the first instance, I had to identify the necessary authorities, and ensure that appropriate permissions had been granted: the Metropolitan Police, Transport for London, and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets Arts, Parks and Events department. Conducting a detailed risk assessment made it clear that participants would need marshals to help them cross several road junctions safely.

The greatest challenge of an outdoor event during a November festival, especially for musicians, is the possibility of bad weather. We purchased umbrellas to be carried by singers in the event of light rain, and identified a covered outdoor space for a more concert-style performance in the event of heavy rainfall. (Happily, it was a lovely day).

What do you feel your audience got from the event?

Feedback showed that the audience was comprised of people of all ages, and included both current East End residents and people who had family roots in the area. Overwhelmingly, those who took part enjoyed the participatory aspect of the event, which they found emotionally powerful. Many commented on how delighted they were to see the positive response from local shopkeepers and passers-by. Most had no prior knowledge of Yiddish, the Jewish history of the neighbourhood, or the history of protest in east London, but felt engaged by the stirring music and speeches.

The Parade also consolidated the work of the singers and musicians in bringing the street music and oratory of the Victorian East End back to life: the company will continue to work together for future public events.

What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating running a similar event in the future?

  1. It’s never too early to begin planning. Many processes in event organising will take considerable time.
  2. Consider related spin-off events that will enable you to expand the reach and impact of your event.
  3. For an outdoor event, make sure you have identified an alternative route or space in the event of bad weather.
  4. Talk to the audience as much as possible!

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