JUDEAN CLUB IN LEEDS (1935) film no: 4703

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This film is from the West Yorkshire Archive Service collection and was made by Jewish tailor and amateur filmmaker, Alec Baron. The film contains footage of the numerous activities carried out by children at the Judean Club in Leeds. There are shots of women paying music, young men learning how to box, fitness classes and sewing lessons.

Alec's family were Russian Jews who escaped the troubles and set up a tailoring business in Leeds. Alec developed a keen interest in film and theatre and set up the first film society outside of London. His films capture family life and social events as well as educational and promotional style films made to encourage people to keep the Jewish way of life.

Title- Leeds Jewish Film Society Presents

Title-A visit to The Judean Club, March, 1935

Title-Messrs. Brough and Levine completely wired and fitted the stage.

Two young men are in a hall; one of them is on a ladder and the other man is standing on the ground. They take turns in working on a fuse box on the ceiling and lower down on a wall. After this, they work on the floor with screwdrivers.

Title-Kalman Waters upholstering a chair.

Another young man is hammering nails into different parts of a chair and then there is a shot of him weaving on a miniature loom. Following this, is a shot of him working with a tool on a small piece of material. There is a shot of a table which is covered in handmade leather purses, pouches and scissor covers.

Title-A peep at the needlework and handicraft sections.

A room is full of women of all ages who are sewing, painting and weaving small baskets. They hold up their work for the camera and this is followed by another lingering, panning shot capturing all the women around the room, as they busily work.

Title-Instruction in boxing by Mr Goldman.

A small group of young men are in a gym skipping; their instructor stands to the side giving them orders. Following that is another class of boxers who are lined up along one wall of a gym watching another man practice his boxing moves.

Two boys smile for the camera and then have a sparring match. There are more shots of the first boxer doing some moves for the camera and then shots of three young men doing boxing moves at the same time.

Title-The Music Section

In another room a group of women play the piano, the violin and stand around singing from a song book. There are close up shots of their hands as they play the instruments.

Following this is a play which is being performed on a small stage. It is a kidnapping plot, as one of the characters is tied up in a chair.

Title-The finals of the table tennis tournament

Two young men play table tennis in a hall while spectators sit around and watch. There is lots of clapping when the game is over.

A billiards ball rolls towards the camera which has been placed on the billiards table. Then the shot cuts to a slightly further away shot of two men having a competition.

Title-The library.

Three young boys sit in a library looking at books; they try not to laugh as they point pages out to each other.

Title-Mental Diversions.

A crowd gather around two boys who are playing chess and after that they play a game of draughts.

Title-The buffet.

Four men stand at a bar with drinks; they raise their glasses and drink.

Title-Physical training organised by Miss H. Silverman and Mr H. Abramson.

A group of young women sit in rows and do a sequence of sit ups, sideward moves, stretches while lying on their stomach, and cycling their legs in the air. There is a shot of their teacher giving orders and then shots of the students bending over to the side and touching their toes; there are also shots of them doing gentle neck stretches.

In the next section the boys are also having an exercise class; they sit on the ground and do arm raises, then touch their feet and then play a game of rolling a ball along the floor. The following section contains a sequence of shots of the girls having a gym class and jumping over a vault. Then the boys have a class and do gymnastic jumps and flips over the vault and the boys also do some twists on the still rings.

Title-The Club Leaders.

A group of men and women sit and stand and pose for the camera. They smile and talk to each other.

Title-The End.

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This is one of a collection of films made by an important member of Leeds’ Jewish community, Alec Baron.  In addition to making films of his family, at about the same time that Alec made this film, he also made one promoting the Jewish religious and cultural heritage, The Talmund Torah And Home For Aged Jews.   Alec was born in Leeds on 29th November 1913, and so he would have only been in his early twenties when he made these films.  His family were one of many who fled Russia in the late nineteenth century to escape the widespread pogroms there: of the estimated 100,000 that settled in this country in the 1880's and 1890's, just over 10,000 come to Leeds.  Altogether some 2.75 million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1814, 85% settling in the US.

After the war Alec took over his father’s tailoring business in Leeds, got married, in 1951, and started a family.  His love of cinema also led him, along with a group of school friends, to set up the first cinema club outside of London, Leeds Film Group,  showing German, Russian, French and other Art Cinema films not shown at commercial cinemas.  This went on to become the Leeds Film Institute Society (later Leeds Film Society), and Alec was a strong supporter in the establishment of the British Film Institute and the National Film Archive.

As well as being a  keen amateur filmmaker, Alec was also heavily involved in the local theatre, forming the  Dramatic and Arts Club, with the same group of friends, and the Proscenium Players, who performed at the Civic Theatre, and  are presumably the amateur theatre group seen in the film.  He also established the  Unity Theatre company in 1939, inspired by the left leaning Unity Theatre at Kings Cross.  He both directed and wrote plays, many with Jewish  themes for the Jewish community – there was a Leeds Jewish Institute Theatre Group .  One of which, They Came to Leeds, written in 1950 in collaboration with local historian Louis Saipe, about the experiences of Jewish immigrants in Leeds, was recently (July 2011) given a rare staging in Leeds. The play is set in 1888 in Leylands, the area of Leeds (in effect a ghetto) where Jewish immigrants settled, highlighting the anti-Semitic hostility and violence they encountered.  It isn’t clear which of the many adventurous plays they performed that is seen in the film; but a look through the catalogue descriptions of his archive, at Leeds University Archive (References), might provide some clues.  His plays are still occasionally performed around the country.

Alec went on to be a co-founder of the Leeds Theatre campaign, and when a temporary home for the Leeds Playhouse was found next to the University in 1964, Alec was the first Administrator.  He retired from this post in 1972 and took up a career as a screenwriter and playwright, having several plays performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.  He also had work performed on the radio, as well as writing scripts for Coronation Street and The Two Ronnies.  He is not to be confused with his contemporary namesake, Alec (Alexander) Baron, another Jewish immigrant writer, who wrote many novels about London (he lived in Hackney), as well as also writing TV scripts – although it appears that, as with many Jews of their generation, they both dabbled with the Communist Party of Great Britain and both fought in the Second World War.  For more on Alec Baron see the brief biography on the Leeds University Archive website.

The pogroms in Russia were initiated in the wake of the assassination by revolutionaries of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  Jews had been forced to live in an area of the Russian Empire known as the Pale of Settlement, where they were hemmed in by hundreds of legal restrictions and were easy targets for the attacks, sanctioned by local police, which led to thousands being killed.  The roots of the persecution of Jews are long and complex – not to say controversial.  Suffice to say that it goes back at least to the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 313.  Subsequent to that, attacks on Jews, expulsions and other forms of oppression, have been regular in European history.  The term anti-Semitism wasn’t coined until 1879, when the German Wilhelm Marr focused the pre-existing anti-Jewish sentiments in Germany at the time in his pamphlet The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism.  Jews, who were concentrated in commerce, were scapegoated for the economic crisis that punctuated German capitalism in the late nineteenth century.  It was a time when various pseudo-scientific theories of race were being propounded in Germany to justify Jewish persecution.  Many now seriously question the scientific credibility of the concept of ‘race’, which emerged out of the colonialism of the 18th century.  Indeed, who counts as a ‘Jew’ is itself subject to disagreement: some through birth, some by adoption of Jewish customs (see De Lange).

The first Jewish community to develop in Leeds came rather late, in the 1840s, with the first synagogue being established in 1846, when it probably numbered under a hundred.  This only really grew to the large community of today, the second largest in Britain outside London, with the arrival of emigrants from Eastern Europe escaping persecution, poverty and disease – mostly from the province of Kovno in Polish-Russia.  Usually speaking Yiddish, with no English, and poverty stricken, there was a great need for communal help.  This come in the form of various Jewish organisations, national and local, including some specifically for young people, such as The Jewish Lads’ and Girl’s Brigade, established in 1895. As well as communal welfare there were also cultural organisations, such as communal theatre, originally all in Yiddish, with the first purpose built Yiddish theatre opening off Brick Lane in the East End of London 1886. 

Many settled in Leeds simply because it was a stop on the route from Hull to Liverpool, before taking a ship to New York.  But it was the Leeds clothing industry that was the main attraction.  The 1891 census shows that 72% of the 8,000 Jews in Leeds were involved in tailoring.  By the time of the next census in 1901 the number in the Jewish community had nearly doubled, though the Aliens' Act of 1905 sharply curtailed this growth.   At the time of this film there were some 25,000, according to The Jewish Year Book of 1935 (though the figures are contested – see References), with the majority of the 200 tailoring firms in Leeds being Jewish owned.   By this time most of the slum area of Leyands had been cleared, with the Jewish community moving to better areas in the north of the city.  For more on the Jewish community in Leeds see Murray Freedman (References) and, especially, Saperia Family History (References).

One of the most successful Jewish businesses in the country emerged from this community when Russian émigré Michael Marks, in partnership with Tom Spencer, established Marks and Spencer in 1894; which by the beginning of World War Two had 234 stores in the UK.   Yet another Jewish Russian émigré from Leeds, who went on to be very successful, is seen as the first name on the classroom blackboard, at the top of the list of donors for the Club Redemption Fund, Sir Montague Burton, founder of the tailoring empire that bears his name.

The Judean Club in Leeds, specifically for young people, was formed in 1929.  It seems that Leeds was the only place in Britain that formed a club with this name, certainly the only one that is still running.  It is a somewhat odd name in that Judea names an area that was only part of the Biblical promised land, and was home to only one of the twelve Israelite tribes.  Today much of the historic area falls within the Palestinian Authority, peopled by both Jews and Muslims, and highly contested.

Although the major violence against Jews in Leeds had passed –  1917 being the worse year – 1935 was hardly a good time to be a Jew.  On the European mainland in Germany the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, de-Germanising Jews,  outlawing intimate relations between Germans and Jews, and forcing  them to wear the Star of David.  Meanwhile, back in England, Hitler’s supporters had been organised by Oswald Mosley into the British Union of Fascists, whose members carried out violent attacks on Jews, culminating in the famous battle of Cable Street in the East End of London the following year in 1936.  The worse was, of course, to come, with the Holocaust carried out by the Nazis who systematically killed six million Jews (along with possibly more non-Jews).

Jews are probably more renown in intellectual and cultural fields than in sport, but as this film attests, it has clearly been an important part of Jewish education.  Yet there have been many outstanding Jewish sportsmen and sportswomen.  One of the stars of the film Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams – who was another son of Jewish immigrants from Russian occupied Poland – held the English record in the long jump for 32 years, and won Gold in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics, equalling the Olympic record three times.  On retirement, Abrahams went on to become an important figure in British athletics, holding many posts, including President of the Jewish Athletic Association, and Chairman of the Amateur Athletic Association. 

Clearly boxing was a major sport for Jewish youth, and here too the Jewish community in England produced a number of champions such as Ted "Kid" Lewis, the professional boxer who won the World Welterweight title in 1915.  David Dee, in his thesis on the Jews and British Sport, claims that, “British professional boxing [was] dominated by Jews from the late nineteenth century through to the Second World War.”  Yet he also states that: “Jewish participation and interest in professional boxing came to catalyse and symbolise the growing detachment of second and third generation Jewish immigrants from the culture, religion, authority and expectations of their parents and grandparents.”  He goes on to argue that, “attempts by Zionist sporting organisations to re-engage Jews with their identity and heritage failed, mainly due to the popularity of sporting over cultural activities.” It would appear that trying to integrate into British society through sport was in conflict with the desire to integrate Jewish youth into their heritage.

Of the approximately 7,000 strong Jewish community in Leeds today, hardly any are tailors and there are hardly any Jewish tailoring companies; with the industry as a whole having dramatically contracted in Leeds since the 60,000 it employed in the 1950's. The club has remained active for over 80 years, with one of its better known former members being Jeff Christie, who reached number one in the charts in 1970 with ‘Yellow River’.   Among the five aims of the club, the last one is “to foster better understanding and friendship between Jews and non-Jews by means of sporting, cultural and social activities.”

References

Pamela Fletcher Jones, The Jews of Britain: A thousand Years of History, The Windrush Press, 1990.
Guy P Harrison, Race and Reality: what everyone should know about our biological diversity,  Prometheus Books, 2009.
Nicholas De Lange, An Introduction to Judaism, Cambridge University Press, 2010
Howard Lupovitch, Jews and Judaism in World History, Routledge, 2010.
David Goldberg and John Rayner, The Jewish People: Their History and Their Religion, Penguin, 1989.
David Gareth Dee, Jews and British Sport: Integration, Ethnicity and Anti-Semitism, c1880-c1960 PhD Theses
Archive Of Alec Baron (1913-1991), Leeds University Archives
Plays by Alec Baron
List of Alec Baron writing and directing credits
They Came To Leeds
Sir Montague Burton
The Jewish Community Of Leeds
Murray Freedman, History of the Leeds Jewish Community Leeds Trail
Edward and Nigel Saperia, Saperia Family History
Laura Vaughan, The Jewish ‘Ghetto’ (Leylands, Leeds)
Leeds Judean Club for Boys & Girls

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