British Museum: Enjoying Jews & Humanity
The Jewish Museum reopens at Albert Street in London on March 17. Writes David Aaronovitch in The Times of London: “The all-new Jewish Museum in North London has the sights and even the smells of an ancient British way of life.
He recalls: “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….
“So will it work? The museum concept, which is to link Britain and the Jews, to see the universal in the particular, seems to me to succeed. In fact, partly because of its compactness, its human scale, it is warmer and far more optimistic than the extraordinary Jewish Museum in Berlin. Here you can enjoy Jews and humanity, more than grieve for them.
“So is this new museum about Jews looking inwards or others looking outward? Does it bring Judaism alive, as well as suggest what it is like — in Woody Allen’s phrase — to be not so much a Jew, as Jew-ish? Does it make the link?
“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through history: the 18th-century Jewish pedlars, the Jewish bare-knuckled boxers, the Jew Bill of 1753 which had to be repealed because of public outcry over naturalisation rights given to Jews, the first Jewish public men, and so on.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.
“My instinct is that an important new national institution is just about to be born….”
The Jewish Museum, Albert Street, London NW1 (020-7284 7384), reopens on March 17