diamond geezer

 Friday, March 26, 2010

JLONDON A-Z (revisited)
An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Jewish Museum

Location: Albert Street, Camden Town NW1 7NB [map]
Open: daily (10am-5pm) (not Saturdays) (closes early on Fridays)
Admission: £7
Brief summary: a celebration of British Judaism
Website: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk
Time to set aside: up to a couple of hours

Last week, up a Camden sidestreet, London's newest museum opened its doors. It's not actually brand new, merely completely revamped, but the building in Albert Street brings together the collections of two rather smaller split-site buildings. After a three year hiatus (and a lot of lottery cash) there's now one major site to tell the story of Judaism as it relates to the UK. And this may not be the tale you're expecting.

mikveh at Jewish MuseumThe Jewish Museum offers an open door policy, with entrance free so long as you don't want to go upstairs. Try not to make the same mistake as me and try to buy a ticket at the coat check. Instead head through the second set of doors and enter the museum proper. You might be distracted by the forest of video screens relating what it's like to be Jewish in Britain today. You might also be tempted into the shop, especially if you've ever wanted an arty menorah or a recyclable "Schlep" bag. You're free to visit the Kosher cafe (assuming it's open), and you can stare at the excavated mikveh (a medieval ritual bath, recently retrieved from the City [pictured]). But that's your lot until you buy an armband.

There are three more floors up the stairs. The first explores Jewish religious life and features a fine collection of ceremonial objects. Some of these are very beautiful, even exquisite, and testament to the craftsmanship of generations. A holy Torah scroll takes centre stage, though with an electronic twist, surrounded by cabinets exploring the faith's central pillars. I learnt a lot from a series of multimedia presentations, so I think (for example) I can now tell the difference between Hanukah and Purim, but I felt I was only scratching the surface of what being Jewish really means. Nevertheless there's a lot here crammed into a small space, and I can well imagine school RE classes ending up here on a field trip.

Floor two is rather larger, and features an exhibition recounting a millennium of Jewish life in Britain. For many centuries this was a life of persecution, most notably back in 1290 when Edward the First expelled the entire Jewish population from the kingdom. Although there are nods to settlers in Norwich, Portsmouth and elsewhere, this is essentially an account of Judaism in the East End of London. Synagogues, bakeries, tailor's workshops and an entire immigrant community were shoehorned into a nucleus of Whitechapel-ish streets, and their life hereabouts is celebrated in all its rich diversity. Roll up and try your hand at Yiddish theatre karaoke (encouraged via video screen by the irrepressible David Scheneider) or lift the lid on a pre-war kitchen (and smell the chicken soup). Again there's a lot here, a fair amount of it interactive, and wandering round took rather longer than the space might have suggested.

There is, of course, a Holocaust Gallery. Rather than attempt to retell the whole horrific story, the museum concentrates on telling the tale of a single survivor. Leon Greenman was born in the East End but was living in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded. Separated from his wife and young son at the gates of Auschwitz, Leon's subsequent experiences make for a poignant and sobering account of Hitler's Final Solution. A friend of the museum until his death a couple of years ago, Leon is remembered with much fondness by the staff, and a cabinet of his rescued belongings helps this compact gallery pack a real emotional punch.

And floor three was empty. There'll be temporary exhibitions up here, and several are scheduled over the forthcoming year, but there's nothing yet. All in all, though, the museum's a most welcome reappearance on the London cultural scene. Surely a must-visit for any Jewish folk in the capital, it's even conveniently located on the Northern line for those in Golders Green to reach with ease. But Gentiles should find plenty of interest and enlightenment here too (so long as they remember not to turn up on a Saturday...)
by tube: Camden Town

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