The Arts: Kiddush Cups to Winehouse

Arts & Books

The Arts: Kiddush Cups to Winehouse

Miriam Shaviv

A 17th-century Italian walnut Ark.
All images courtesy of the Jewish Museum London.
At a public meeting in London in 1915, novelist Israel Zangwill was accosted by a heckler calling him an “alien Jew.” Although his parents were immigrants, Zangwill was born and bred in London and confident in his identity.

“I am a Jew of course, I am proud of it,” he replied. “The advantage of being Jewish by birth brought me into relation with a good deal of suffering over the world and I appreciate more than Englishmen possibly may do the great advantage the English enjoy in the possession of liberty in their constitution.”

His response so inspired his peers that the journalists on the main Anglo-Yiddish paper, Di Tsayt (the times), had it engraved on a decorative wooden plate that they presented to him. Today, the plate is on permanent display at the Jewish Museum London (011-44-20-7284-7384;, and in many ways embodies the main story that emerges from the exhibits—that of the ongoing struggle of Jews to integrate into wider British society.

It is a theme deliberately cultivated by the museum, which was reopened to wide acclaim in March 2010 after a $16-million renovation. “We have a positive story to tell—here is a group that came as immigrants and went on to make a contribution to society,” says museum director Rickie Burman. “We wanted to tell the story of the Jewish people in Britain as part of the wider story of Britain itself, in a way that was inspiring for Jews but also resonant for the wider public.” 

The sentiment is perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist; since the 1970s, Britain has been focused on creating a multicultural society, celebrating ethnic and religious groups that have immigrated to its shores. This departure from the previous emphasis on cultural conformity was brought about by a rapid rise in the number of immigrants as well as deliberate policy by successive Labor governments, particularly those of Tony Blair between 1997 and 2007. But while celebration of one’s ethnic identity may come naturally to Americans, it is something the more reserved Brits are still learning to do. The Jewish museum is currently the only museum in London dedicated to a minority community. 

“The Jewish community is one of the oldest minorities,” says Burman. “The museum reflects the length of time Jews have been in this country, the active interest Jewish people have taken in their own history and their wealth of resources.”

The Jewish museum was founded in 1932 and merged in 1995 with the London Museum of Jewish Life, which preserved the heritage of London’s East End, where immigrant Jews settled in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The combined museum ran in two locations until 2008, when work began on a joint site in trendy Camden Town in north London. The museum bought a former piano factory adjacent to its building, tripling the museum’s space. The result is a bright and modern interior that still preserves many of the factory’s original industrial features. 

Today, the museum has four permanent galleries and a changing exhibit gallery. The Welcome Gallery, a small hall immediately beyond the entrance, focuses on Anglo-Jewry today, with long white screens dropping down from the ceiling featuring interviews with 10 British Jews. Some might find the diversity of this 300,000-strong community surprising. Among others, we hear from Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the left-wing Guardian newspaper; Flora Frank, a religious grandmother who has completed dozens of marathons; and an ex-army engineer commended for her action during the London bombings of 2005.

The focus on personal storytelling—a constant throughout the museum—brings the Jewish experience to life. This is particularly useful as most of the museum does not look at modern Jewish life, but on history and ritual. 

Reconstructed mikve from the 13th century.
Indeed, the deep roots of Jews and Judaism in England become apparent on leaving the Welcome Gallery. A 13th-century mikve, which belonged to the medieval Crespin family and was discovered in the City of London in 2001, has been meticulously reconstructed. As the mikve, below the ground, can be difficult to see on approach, the display is cleverly enhanced by overhead mirrors, which makes it a focal point at the museum entrance.

The museum’s Judaica is among the finest in the world; it is one of only 14 museums in London to earn Designated status, awarded to libraries and museum collections deemed of great importance by Britain’s Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. 

Its section on ritual and life cycle, Judaism: A Living Faith, is designed to resemble a synagogue. An open Torah scroll is placed in the middle of the room, symbolizing its centrality to Jewish life. Also on display is an imposing 17th-century Italian Ark, believed to be from a Venice synagogue. The walnut Ark, gilded and decorated with Jewish symbols such as a menora, was discovered in 1932 in a Northumbria castle, in use as a steward’s wardrobe. 

Near the Ark stands a large 17th- or 18th-century Torah mantle with silver pomegranates commissioned by Abraham Mocatta, a member of one of Britain’s most famous Jewish families. In the middle is an embroidered picture of a small Torah—decorated just like the mantle.
Other notable items include the Lindo lamp, the oldest-known example of an English menora, dating back to 1709. The silver lamp depicts the prophet Elijah being fed by ravens. 

A section on charity contains a fascinating book kept by the Great Synagogue in London in the 18th century, recording members’ charitable contributions. Each member is listed, and a thread is inserted into holes indicating the size of the gift, such as a crown or half a guinea.

The gallery called The History: A British Story shows that the country’s Jewish history goes back far further than the 18th century—to the Norman invasion of 1066. The display includes rare items belonging to medieval British Jewry, such as a seal ring inscribed in Hebrew, found in a field in Kent in southeast England; and “tally sticks” from the town of Gloucester, near the Welsh border, a form of receipt recording payment by Isaac the butcher. 

In 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews, whom he no longer needed as moneylenders; they returned in 1656. Soon Jews, many working as peddlers, spread across the country. The museum displays a brass mortar and pestle used by immigrants to grind ingredients such as poppy seeds.

The Jewish Museum London.
In the 1880s, 150,000 Russian and Polish Jews arrived in Britain. In the East End of London, a vibrant immigrant culture flourished—amid tensions with the more established, and more secular, community. The Jewish Free School, which educated a third of London’s Jewish children between 1880 and 1900, wrote in its 1912 magazine: “It must be remembered that many of our boys have to depend entirely on school for spoken and written English.”

Another highlight is an interactive video and small stage with a karaoke machine that allows visitors to re-create scenes from Yiddish plays. The video, presented by comedian David Schneider, whose grandparents were performers in London’s Yiddish theater, is displayed along with costumes, posters and programs from the museum’s large collection. There are also evocative videos of an East End street, with different characters talking about their lives.

The Holocaust, which has its own gallery, is also depicted with a personal touch, told through the eyes of one man, Leon Greenman, who had settled in Rotterdam after marrying a Dutch woman and survived six camps, including Auschwitz. The display includes his Buchenwald uniform, a lock of hair belonging to his toddler, Barney, who did not survive, and cutlery from Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Greenman brought with him to Britain after the war. 

There is relatively little on postwar Anglo Jewry. However, much can be gleaned from the museum’s most high-profile exhibit since its relaunch, “Entertaining the Nation,” on display through January 8, 2012. It explores Jewish contributions to the British entertainment industry over the last century and includes mementoes such as a gold lamé suit belonging to Mark Bolan of T. Rex, a guitar belonging to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and a portrait of Amy Winehouse on loan from the National Portrait Gallery (which, since her death in July, has a special plaque underneath).

The exhibit demonstrates the importance of immigration as a source for cultural creativity in Britain. As in the United States, Jews were prominent in the music industry from the 1920s on. For children of immigrants closed out of established professions, this was a path out of poverty, and later generations were still enticed by dreams of stardom. However, early British Jewish singers such as Frankie Vaughan and later stars such as Bolan rarely drew on their identity. It is only in the last 15 years or so that British performers such as Knopfler, whose father was Jewish, have become more open about their heritage. 

The prime example is, of course, the late Winehouse, who lived minutes from the museum. The singer often ventured out wearing a Star of David necklace she inherited from her grandmother, visited relatives in Israel and delivered chicken soup to her taxi-driver father, Mitch, in the hospital (he told the London Jewish News in 2010 that she “loves to make chicken soup as it helps to relax her. She loves Jewish food”). Her funeral ceremony was held at a Jewish cemetery and her family sat shiva for her.

Winehouse was embraced by the Jewish community, which related closely to her family background. In life, the Jewish press followed her exploits closely; her death prompted numerous pieces on the Jewishness of her music and even a certain amount of pride at the prospect of a Jewish funeral and shiva being featured so widely in the mainstream press (still rare in Britain).

In the acting realm, Jews moved from roles such as Fagin and Shylock toward positive portrayals of Jewish characters, with some young comedians, such as Sacha Baron Cohen (creator of characters such as Borat and Ali G.), using their heritage to poke fun at all racism.
According to Burman, the new confidence reflects a wider change in British society. “Society has become more diverse,” she says. “As performers from other ethnicities present their own identities, Jews do, too.” As a result, Jews have been able to better shape their image in the media, presenting themselves “as part of society, not exotic or strange or alien.”

Just the kind of immigration success story, then, that the museum wants to tell. 

Miriam Shaviv is a columnist for The Jewish Chronicle in Britain.

All the Screen’s a Stage 
The words “Yiddish Theater” may bring to mind New York’s Second Avenue, yet London had a Yiddish theatrical tradition just as vibrant and as important to its immigrant community. Through its collections, the Jewish Museum London’s online exhibit, “Yiddish Theatre in London” (, looks at the history and sights—a photo of fake mustaches, from short to handlebar, worn by actors; an image from The Jewish King Lear—of the city’s Yiddish stage. The exhibit is part of an ambitious project created by Judaica Europeana,, to index and digitize the millions of Jewish artifacts housed in Europe. —Leah F. Finkelshteyn  

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