London Jewish Museum Reopens

Published: March 18th 2010
in Culture » Art

Artist's impression of the East End Street in the new gallery.
Pic: London Jewish Museum
Nigella Lawson
Pic: JP Maclet

Domestic goddess Nigella Lawson was on hand recently to help celebrate the reopening of the London Jewish Museum following a £10 million redevelopment. Reminding attendees that the quintessentially English food – fish and chips – has Sephardic Jewish roots, the culinary personality and journalist was joined by Alan Yentob,  creative director of the BBC and one of the museum’s patrons.


"The reopening of the Jewish Museum, increasing its size and scope threefold, has been much anticipated and I’m delighted to say that it really does exceed all our expectations,” Yentob said. “Here is a new national museum which reaches out to all faiths and all communities, both secular and religious, and tells a riveting story of the nation’s oldest minority group in the kind of human detail which promises to surprise and enthrall.”


The museum was closed in September 2007 for major renovations. Located in the northwest district of Camden Town, the expansion and redevelopment of the museum was made possible through a £4.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donations from trusts, funds and individuals. It expects to attract roughly 65, 000 visitors this year alone.


“I’m hugely looking forward to the Jewish Museum opening its doors again to the public,” said Dame Jenny Abramsky, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund. “It’s been greatly missed, but thanks to this major redevelopment it is looking better than ever. Now under one roof, the collections are truly inspirational, bringing together many different stories told in a wonderful range of voices.”


A myriad of historical figures are featured in the museum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, war poet Isaac Rosenberg, and concentration camp survivor and British weightlifting champion Ben Helfgott. There are also interactive exhibits featuring Jewish rituals along with a recreated East end immigrant’s kitchen that features the heavenly scent of cooking chicken soup for visitors to inhale. There’s also the opportunity to play Yiddish karaoke and experience a medieval-era mikveh from 1270, discovered in the English metropolis in 2001. Another gallery focuses on the Holocaust, and features the experience of London-born Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman as well as other survivors who have made Britain their home.


“What it means to be British and the issue of cultural identity has never been more hotly debated,” said Rickie Burman, director of the museum. “At the new Jewish Museum we explore these issues in the context of one of Britain’s oldest immigrant communities. We hope our groundbreaking new displays will inspire people to take a stand against racism and build interfaith understanding and connections."


Several precious, rare items of Judaica are also part of the museum, including a Torah mantle commissioned by the Mocatta family, one of the oldest Jewish families in Britain, as well as silver Torah scrolls made by King George III’s silversmith. All this finery might imply a positive history for Britain’s Jews. Not so. As the museum exhibitions demonstrate, the entirety of England’s Jewish population was expelled by King Edward I in 1290 following years of anti-Semitic violence; they were only granted re-admittance under Oliver Cromwell in 1656. Centuries on, Jews were still prevented from serving in many high-ranking professions, including being in Parliament. Prime Minister Disraeli was only allowed to serve because of his conversion to Christinity as a teenager.


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