The Jewish Museum
Albert Street, Camden, London
#163;7 adults#163;3 childrenunder fives free
- 2001, archaeologists excavating a house in the City of London came across seven stone steps leading down into a small recess. It doesn't sound too arresting, but the structure was identified as a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, dated to the 13th century, making it one of the oldest physical remnants of Jewish communities in Britain.
Now it is on display for the first time in the Jewish Museum in London, where it is one of the highlights of the refurbished galleries. The museum reopened earlier this month after a two-year, #163;14-million expansion and reshaping.
The museum, housed in a converted Victorian terrace and an adjoining former piano factory, provides both an introduction to Jewish culture and religion, and a chronicle of the often turbulent history of the Jews in Britain.
The mikveh itself is a pocket reminder of the tribulations of the Jews. It was found underneath a house in Milk Street that had been owned by one Moses Crespin, a leading London financier, who had inherited it from his father Jacob. But the Crespins were forced to flee when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 on the orders of Edward I. The house, valued at #163;3 19s was confiscated and given to Martin Ferraunt, a servant of Queen Eleanor.
This expulsion was just one of many upheavals suffered by the Jews after their arrival on these shores. Although there may have been Jews in Britain since Roman times, the first recorded immigration came with William the Conqueror, who invited Jewish merchants from Normandy to accompany him across the Channel.
The following 200 years was a time of sanctions and persecution, interspersed with brief periods of toleration. Henry I, for example, granted a royal charter stating that the word of a Jew was worth that of 12 Christians because they represented the king in financial matters, and Jews were permitted to move around the kingdom as if they were the king's property.
After the expulsion in 1290, Jews continued to live in Britain, albeit often having to hide their culture and religion. It was not until the 17th century that they were officially readmitted.
Perhaps inevitably due to the amount of evidence available, the museum devotes considerable attention to Jewish life at the beginning of the last century. East End communities are particularly well-represented, through artefacts from various trades, posters advertising the Yiddish theatre and a reconstructed kitchen complete with the waft of chicken soup.
Holocaust galleries may seem incongruous in a museum devoted to Jewish life here given that few British Jews were sent to the concentration camps. But many of the victims had relatives here, and camp survivors were among those who settled in the UK after the war. The museum's approach is to focus on the story of Leon Greenman, a British Jew who was living in Holland at the time of the German occupation, and whose wife and son died in the camps.
Just as poignant, even though anonymous, are the newspaper adverts from Jews hoping to escape the impending Nazi onslaught, knowing they could only legally settle in Britain if they had a job offer. "Hard-working, reliable married couple urgently seeks domestic work. Must leave Vienna," reads one.
The museum's schools programme is split into two strands: learning about the Jewish faith and Holocaust education, the latter in turn divided into a Kinder transport unit for primary pupils and Leon Greenman's story for secondary classes.
But the non-student has as much to learn from the Jewish Museum, which provides an absorbing insight into the lives of one of Britain's oldest minorities.
The verdict 8 10.