A few steps away from the markets and bars of Camden Town you’ll find one of London’s little treasures – the Jewish Museum.
The current building was put to use in 2010 – the Jewish Museum is actually an amalgamation of the collections of the old Jewish Museum (established in Bloomsbury in the early 1930s) and the Museum of the Jewish East End, formed in the 1980s. The museum tells the story of the various migrations of Jews to the UK over the centuries, the areas where they settled, their role in British society, and of course there are accounts of the experiences of refugees who escaped the Holocaust.
Arriving at the museum, the first area that you will encounter is the temporary Olympic display. This isn’t a case of the museum trying to muscle in on London 2012 – in fact the father of the Paralympic Games is Ludwig Guttman. A German Jew, Guttman helped many Jews escape from Nazi Germany in 1938 and then fled himself, finally setting in Oxford where, as a celebrated neurologist, he founded the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He went on to instigate a rehabilitation programme at the hospital which involved sporting competition – the Stoke Mandeville Games, which over time have been re-branded as the Paralympic Games.
On the ground floor next to the ubiquitous cafe and shop is one of the Jewish Museum’s oldest artifacts – a mid-13th century mikveh, or ceremonial bath, unearthed in the City of London in 2001 which was built as part of the grand home of the Crespin family, who were early financiers. Take the short flight of steps from here and you’ll find yourself in a vaulted space dedicated to Jewish traditions. Accompanied by a rich collection of artifacts, visitors can learn about the ritual involved in the everyday life of Jews – there are sections on the celebration of the Sabbath (including a table laid out in the same way that you would find in an observant Jewish home anywhere in London today) and the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim and of course Pessach, or Passover. You will also find details of the Jewish life cycle, such as male circumcision, a boy’s barmitzvah at age 13, and so on. I noted that there were some fine examples of the highly polished instruments used in the first ritual, but I didn’t look too closely – the men reading this post will understand! Also in this space is a collection of items relating to the Synagogue, which includes a dazzling array of torah covers (also known as ‘the mantle of the law’). There are highly adorned examples from all across Europe, and taking pride of place is a Synagogue Ark from 18th century Italy – this ornately carved cabinet is the place where the torah is stored between ceremonies.
Take the stairs to the next floor and you will find historical information on the arrival of Jews in the UK at various points in history. You’ll discover, for example, that the Jews are believed to have first arrived in the company of the French in 1066 (indeed the Domesday book of 1086 records Jewish names for the first time). What’s rather disturbing are the accounts of persecution that the Jews have suffered at certain times – in fact in the 12th century Jews were required to wear a badge, called a tabula, to distinguish them from the general population. I can’t be the first person to draw parallels with the symbols that they were forced to wear some 800 years later. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the rights of Jews equalled those of other citizens, but of course their prominence in British society grew rapidly after that. Prime Minister Disraeli was born a Jew (although he converted to Christianity as a child) and Lionel de Rothschild MP was part of the family which continues to be one of Britain’s wealthiest dynasties. The museum doesn’t just focus on the lives of prominent public figures however – there is also lots of information on the lives of ordinary Jews in London, recounting the hardships that they experienced as poor immigrants to the East End from the Victorian era onwards, and in particular the scarred and shattered families who arrived from Eastern Europe in the ’40s and ’50s. The Jewish soldier is also celebrated here – 41,500 Jews served in the First World War, while 60,000 left home to battle the Nazis in World War II. The last thing to see on this floor is the area that is especially dedicated to Holocaust survivor Leon Greenman – born in Whitechapel, Leon was one of the very few to survive the Auschwitz death camps. After being liberated by the Americans he returned to London and dedicated his entire life to the education of young people, travelling up and down the country to tell them about his experiences at the hands of the Nazis, and the dangers of fascism. The Queen awarded him an OBE in 1998 in recognition of his work. Take a few minutes to sit down and watch the interviews with Leon that are screened in this area – he was quite the character.
Up on the top floor of the Jewish Museum there’s a temporary exhibition space – at the moment it is housing ‘World City – Refugee Stories’, which looks at the experiences of people who have fled to Britain from various despotic regimes. You can read about Kumar Kumarendran, who escaped persecution in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s, and Anna Davis, a kind-looking chemistry teacher who as a teenager fled from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s when it was invaded by the Russians.
Entry to the Jewish Museum costs £7.50 for adults and, surprisingly, photography is permitted as long as you don’t use a flash (and you can find a few more shots of my visit here). I should also mention that the staff are almost certainly the kindest and most friendly museum staff anywhere in London. That’s what happens when you employ Jewish mothers in key roles… mazel tov!