Raymond Burton House
129-131 Albert Street
London NW1 7NB
129-131 Albert Street
London NW1 7NB
Tuesday August 11 2014
In a slightly counter-intuitive move and because the venue and timing suited those of us with other commitments we opted to visit London's Jewish Museum located in a beautiful 19th Century terrace on the surprisingly quiet Albert Street , which is just off parkway in Camden - Mary and I arrived via the Northern Line at Camden alongside the hordes heading for the markets, while Jo bicycled. The Museum does not have dedicated bicycle racks so she had to make do with a piece of street furniture.
Once inside the building you lose sight of the 19th century facade. The Museum moved here in 1994 but was only opened in this much more spacious format in 2010 – a disused piano factory had given the Museum space to expand and on our visit today we really only covered two floors. There is a plan to move the Jewish Military Museum here quite soon and there is also space for special exhibitions, usually on the ground floor where there are also toilets a café and shop, and one of their prize exhibits a ritual bath (Mikva) rescued from Milk Street. The cloakroom happily takes bags.
Mary opted to start with the 2nd floor, which is a more intimate space devoted to the religion of Judaism. She also attracted the attention of one of the several volunteer room guides who was keen to enlighten her about the detail of Jewish beliefs and rituals. I was left largely to my own devices either because I was making notes or they assumed I must know some of it…only partly true. Talking of enlightenment, the centre pieces of this space are a range of beautiful specifically religious light fittings from round the world. We were very impressed with the labelling and displays within the museum, there seemed to be an ideal balance between artefacts/context and robust inter-active explanations and enhancements. For instance there are short videos of young Jews explaining the various customs pertaining the celebrations and rituals of birth, marriage, death etc. Walking seven times round the groom – symbolic for the journeys to make a home. Stamping on the glass – to remember that there are difficult times as well as happy during a marriage and to remember the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. There are significant amounts of polished silver for candelabra and the handles which hold the holy scrolls – the Torah. More unusually there was a swaddling cloth to hold the male infant’s legs during circumcision – at which point Mary got into a discussion with one of the museum volunteers, who it seemed was a retired doctor… there was also an example of an elaborately calligraphed Ketubah, otherwise known as a ‘pre-nup’. Another grand exhibit is the upright chest, beautifully decorated walnut wood, made to hold the scrolls and found in 1932 being used as a boot cupboard – probably bought in Italy by some well -heeled Englishman doing the ‘Grand Tour’.
Touring and moving on is of course key to the Jews’ story and it is no different for those in UK; the Jewish arrivals from the time of William the Conqueror in 1066 are where England’s particular time-line begins. They came as the money (lending) men behind the invaders and stayed to be merchants, settling undisturbed for some 200 years. First expulsions came during the reign of Edward I and he also introduced the system of ‘badge-wearing’ shaped like the 2 tablets rather than a star of David. And expelled they stayed except for a few who perhaps ‘hid’ their religion as nicely represented by a single candle burning in a window. You can listen to Anthony Sher talking about Shakespeare’s representations of Jews and his own experiences growing up in South Africa.
Oliver Cromwell, who had some tolerance for minority religions (and needed some independent cash backers) allowed the Jews back in and again they settled in our larger cities. Walk through Lincoln for example and you will find the corner named as ‘Old Jewry’. Once the Jewish community became well established in the UK there a range of artefacts showing Jews following a range of occupations form peddler to politician (there are some who might think these two sides of the same coin – peddling trifles or peddling lies?) of whom Montefiore and of course Disraeli were the most famous. A large section is devoted to memories from the old East End – the Jews like refugees/arrivals/immigrants before and after them settled in the streets round Whitechapel and the Commercial Road. This theme – life, work and play in the East End – is handled really well, which is not surprising as the Museum was originally founded to preserve evidence of this way of life before the buildings, fittings and folk disappeared. You can hear ‘testament’ from different generations of the Jews who formed part of the mass migrations from Eastern Europe bringing with them their skills, foods and Yiddish language – a mixture of largely old German, Slavic and Hebrew. Tailoring is looked at in some detail as is membership of trade unions, and indeed political parties.
Like all ‘arrivals’ they were greeted with suspicion and fear – an excellent display shows a range of ‘press cuttings’ over several centuries pointing out the ‘perceived threats’ posed by the incomers showing how little ignorant public opinion has changed over the years.
The role of Jewish servicemen during both world wars is covered briefly (we had missed the special WW1 exhibition which rather to our surprise had already been taken down) and this aspect of Jewish History will undoubtedly be covered in more detail when the Military Museum moves here at a later stage. Highlighted is the poet Isaac Rosenberg, killed in France in 1915, and a serving sailor.
Probably less well known is the sizeable contribution Jewish fighters made during the Spanish Civil war, and on home ground to the Union movement generously illustrated by a range of exhibits. The years between the two wars saw the rise of Zionism and the campaign for a safe haven for Jews in the Palestine, while Europe saw the growth of the right wing anti-semitism that would eventually become the destructive Nazi regime leading to the most infamous episode in Jewish history; both the stories of those who survived the camps and Holocaust and those who were able to flee are told through moving testament. Never an easy listen or visit but an essential part, and here a very proportionate part of the Jewish history in the UK.
Today the Museum felt calm allowing the visit to be contemplative of what is anything but a calm and quiet history; this may be a very different experience during term time but certainly today we had a full and informative visit.