The Jewish Museum London Location: Albert Street, Camden Town NW1 7NB [map] Open: 10am - 5pm (closes at 2pm on Fridays) Admission: £7.50 (Art Pass holders go free) Five word summary: a celebration of British Judaism Website:www.jewishmuseum.org.uk Time to set aside: one to two hours
London's Jewish museum is well hidden in a residential terrace up a Camden sidestreet, between the market and the zoo. It opened its doors here in 2010, bringing together the collections of two rather smaller split-site buildings, but wholly revamped in an attempt to tell the story of Judaism as it relates to the UK. It's a sad reflection on our times that where the coat check used to be is now a security office and a second guard waits outside, welcoming visitors but keeping an eye open just in case.
The museum has an open door policy with entrance free so long as you don't want to go upstairs. You're allowed access to the well-stocked shop and also to the cafe (which offers a pescetarian menu, but is no longer strictly Kosher). You can stare at the excavated mikveh (a medieval ritual bath recovered from the City of London) and ponder its many cleansing uses. And you'll likely be distracted by the temporary 'Great British Jews' exhibition, a colourful showcase of unfamiliarly famous names... Gerry Anderson, Fenella Fielding, Claire Rayner, Daniel Radcliffe, to name but four. But that's your lot until you pay up.
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, midway through its annual progression, surrounded by several 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 Hanukkah 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. It took until 1656 for Oliver Cromwell to invite them back. Although there are nods to settlers in Norwich, Portsmouth and elsewhere, this is chiefly an account of Judaism in the East End of London. Numerous 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.
Linking in with Sunday's post one display contains Israel Zangwill's most famous novel and his personal seal, plus a commemorative plate inscribed with a pertinent putdown to a heckler who dared call him an "alien Jew". Roll up and try your hand at Yiddish theatre karaoke (encouraged via video screen by the irrepressible David Schneider) or lift the lid on a pre-war kitchen (and smell the chicken soup). Trace the history of Jews in the military, from 'had to pretend to be Christian' (1757) to 'carried an ID tag to ensure, if shot, they'd get a Jewish burial' (WW1) to 'given a non-Jewish alias to ensure that, if the Germans captured them, they'd survive' (WW2). 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 and married in the East End but had moved to the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded. Separated from his wife and two year-old son at the gates of Auschwitz, Leon's subsequent experiences make for a poignant and sobering account of Hitler's Final Solution in all its hideous cruelty. Leon chose to devote the remainder of his life to telling his truth to others, especially in schools, and was a friend of the museum until his death in 2008. Circulating around a cabinet of his rescued belongings, this compact gallery packs a real emotional punch.
And floor three is for unpermanent exhibitions. The latest is 'Jews, Money, Myth', which was supposed to close in July but has been extended due to popular demand (and not just because they haven't got the next one ready). It explores how Jews gained a reputation as financially devious, from Judas's thirty pieces of silver to medieval moneylending to the Rothschilds, and how disingenuous stereotypes eventually stuck. Numerous examples of anti-semitism are included - the curators make no bones about it - confirming that much of the thoughtlessness we see today has been going on for years. So yes, the museum's a must-visit for any Jewish folk in the capital, but Gentiles will find plenty of interest and enlightenment here too.