East End Jewish Cemeteries by Louis Berk
An Oasis in Whitechapel - East End Jewish Cemeteries
I am a secondary school teacher, and since 2004, I have worked at a school in Brady Street, in the heart of Whitechapel. I did not realise until I was looking out of a second story window one day that my school adjoins one of the oldest Jewish Cemeteries in the UK.
Brady Street cemetery was founded in 1761, and closed almost 100 years later in 1858 when the grounds became full-up.
Having no connection to the cemetery, I thought it unlikely I would ever see inside. Then, one day, as I was in school, I heard the sounds of activity as groundsmen were carrying out maintenance, and they kindly allowed me to take a look around.
Once inside the walls it was as though I had been transported to a forest, as I was surrounded by trees, shrubs and at one point, an inquisitive fox that trotted past me down a path. An idea formed in my mind: it would be wonderful to capture this hidden oasis in photographs, as a record of an interesting environment, and to make it visible to others.
I was fortunate that when I approached the owners of the cemetery, The United Synagogue of Great Britain, they readily agreed to my request. They even made it possible for me to have access to the cemetery whenever I wanted.
Early Mornings and Late Evenings
Undertaking a long-term project right next door to where I worked allowed me to photograph very early in the morning. During the winter months, this was before and during dawn, and also at sunset.
In the summer it allowed me to capture the sometimes delicate early morning sunlight before the day became bleached out with too much sun.
Waiting for snow
I began the project in July 2011, with the objective of recording a year in the life of the cemetery. By the same time in 2012, I had a lot of material to work with, but I was missing one important element: snow. The winters at the start of this decade were surprisingly mild, and I had to wait until 2013 for a reasonable covering.
This was no real hardship, as I enjoyed my time alone in the quiet solitude of the cemetery, and continued to visit and take photographs. I also chose to work mainly with medium format film cameras. This requires considerably more concentration than working with digital cameras. It is a slow and careful process. This entirely matched the ambience of my surroundings.
At the end of the second year I showed my work to the owners, who asked me if I would also photograph in Alderney Road Cemetery, in nearby Stepney Green. This is an even older cemetery than Brady Street, established in 1696, very close to the time that Jews began to settle in the UK.
East End Jewish Cemeteries: Brady Street and Alderney Road
In 2016, I approached Amberley Books with a number of ideas for titles, and they were immediately enthusiastic about a book containing my photographs of Brady Street and Alderney Road.
The book contains 96 pages, mostly filled with photographs, and also an introduction to the cemetery by the recognised authority on its history, Rachel Kolsky, who is an award winning London Blue Badge guide and author.
Louis Berk's new book East End Jewish Cemeteries is available for purchase now.