Five years ago I first went to an exhibition at the small Jewish Museum in North London. I suppose I saw it as a rather charming bijou museum, mostly about Jews showing things to other Jews. On March 17, however, it will be relaunched as a much bigger enterprise: the museum I was taken round last week by its director, Rickie Burman, was altogether a different proposition.
The Jews are the nation’s oldest minority, and the first Jewish Museum, mostly of objects from the practice of Judaism in Britain, was opened in 1932. Much later a second museum, devoted to the distinctive history of the Jews of the East End of London, started up in Finchley. In 1995 these two institutions merged into one museum located in two terraced houses in a street not far from Camden market. The museum had already bought the premises backing on to the terrace — a piano factory — for some £4 million. Two major benefactors helped to raise nearly £6 million, to set alongside £4.2 million granted by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The museum closed in 2008 to be reshaped under the old skin of the building. Now it’s ready to emerge.
[...]You enter the museum through a series of moving images projected onto five screens, depicting the life and words of a variety of modern British Jews. They include an Edward Lear-bearded, accented Hasidic rabbi; a young gay Jew; an ex-army Jewish princess; the concentration-camp survivor and former British weightlifting champion Ben Helfgott; a London cabbie who had fought in the Yom Kippur war of 1973; a woman Chinese convert to Judaism; a smoked-salmon magnate; and a Guardian journalist. The films are beautifully made and the idea of representing “different ways of being Jewish” is, I think, realised.
Then, right in front of you, is the museum’s “scoop” item. In 2001, excavators in Milk Street in the City of London uncovered a sunken bath made out of green sandstone, 4ft wide and 4ft deep, reached by seven steps. Its location, on the site of a house owned by a Jewish family in the late 13th century, identified it as a mikveh, or ritual bath, typically used by women after menstruation or before attendance at synagogue.[...]
There is an interactive “ask the rabbi” feature, in which those who enjoyed A Serious Man can put questions to four rabbis of different denominations (Jews like to argue), and an electronic Ten Commandments. The largest gallery tells the tale of the Jews of Britain through history: the 18th-century Jewish pedlars, the Jewish bare-knuckled boxers, the Jew Bill of 1753 which had to be repealed because of public outcry over naturalisation rights given to Jews, the first Jewish public men, and so on.Part of the display is in “street” form, representing life in the Jewish East End, and allows visitors to follow members of a Jewish family circa 1900 in their daily lives. There’s even a pot, where you lift the lid and it smells of chicken soup. Very poignant is the small collection of items left and never reclaimed from the deposit boxes in the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter. For children and exhibitionists there’s a chance to dress up like characters from the old, lost Yiddish theatre.
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