3) The London Jewish Museum: Hands-on fun, with a gold one for the Torah.


The Jewish Museum, London.

A play synagogue! I don't think there are any play bris dolls, though.

  • Location: Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, Camden NW1 7NB.
  • Type of Museum: History, Contemporary Culture.
  • Admission times/prices:  Sunday-Thursday: 10am – 5pm, Friday: 10am – 2pm. Closed Saturday, as you’d expect.  Adults: £7, Concessions: £6, Child (5-16): £3, Museum Friends and Under 5s: free
  • Facilities: Café, shop – both free entry – workshops and courses.
  • Transport:  Camden Town or Mornington Crescent tubes. Buses 24, 27, 29, 31, 88, 134, 168, 214, 253, 274, C2. Not far from the Regents’ Canal for cycling or walking if you, like us, are trying to be fitter this year.

The main bit(s).

Although the reason we went here was because of its proximity to a fish-eating-feet spa, this is one of my favourite museums so far.

Bathing for the vain.

The first thing you see is the Mikveh, an ancient stone bath. My daughter wanted to make it into a hot-tub, and, sacrilegious as that is, I wouldn’t mind it at all either.

The sign said that it was ritually used for women when they had their period and after birth, which makes it only a little less enticing.

On the first floor, the hexagonal Maurice and Vivian Wohl area has hands-on displays about some of the major Jewish festivals, an ark (we resisted the temptation to raid it), a torah and pointers, and loads and loads and loads of gold. Woah. It looks like a section of the Crown Jewels exhibition. At this point I realised that the (free) high-security cloakroom wasn’t just because the Jewish Museum is a more likely target for terrorist attacks – it’s because it has so much stuff that anyone would want to steal.

The only way is up, baby, for you and me now...

Some of the gold items are ‘yads,’ meaning hand, pointers that are used to read the Torah scrolls rather than sully it with your hands. In traditional Judaism, women won’t do this, but we saw a video of reform and liberal Jewish girls’ batmitzvahs, in which they wore kippahs (skullcaps) and shawls and read from the Torah just like the boys, only with all their bits intact. All of this was explained to us by a jovial volunteer who seemed to know several of the visitors by name.

This is the reaction you get when you taunt a growing girl with fake food.

The Shabbat demonstration area allows you to sit at the table and pretend to join in as the sky gradually darkens behind you and three stars appear, signalling the end of Shabbat. A recording intones the chant that is sung at the end of this meal, all in Hebrew except for the incongruous and wavering ‘have a good week.’ In Hebrew, this is ‘Shabuatov,’ by the way.

Next up is the history of Jews in England. Did you know that, in 1290, Jews were banned from England? I didn’t. Those that stayed had to convert, or pretend to convert, to Christianity, but they were still always under suspicion.  One of the good things Cromwell did was to allow Jews to live in England openly again, in 1650. After that, Jewish culture flourished,  originally centred around my manor in Bethnal Green, although, like many communities, they’ve gradually moved further out.

A lot of this section is hands-on, so is in the ‘Kids’ section below.

The extra bit(s).

Bet she was the kind of Gran whose old stories you really didn't mind hearing.

Downstairs, in the Joseph and Queenie Gold auditorium, there’s a display of photographs of holocaust survivors, not gaunt walking skeletons like on the History Channel but vibrant people with varied lives and lots of wrinkles. This is in aid of the upcoming Holocaust memorial day, the secular event which remembers victims of all genocides, not purely Jewish people exterminated by the Nazis.

On the top floor there’s a display about Moroccan Jews, but, um, I can’t write anything about this because we arrived too late due to Google bloody maps getting us lost. If I can face the long trek back to Camden, I might return and update this section later.

The bits where you end up spending money.

According to the Amazon review, you feed the dog kosher food and pressure it to marry a doctor.

On the ground floor, the shop and café are both open to the public without paying museum entry. Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop at the café, partly because we spent so much time at the shop. It has all sorts of little treats that you’d love to take home, like a ruler with numbers in Hebrew (words), cloth books for tinies, kippahs and hairclips, and a little measuring tape in the shape of a house; I bought one and my anti-Semitic puppy has now eaten it.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

A lot of the exhibits are hands-on, like a mini-kitchen where you can plait hallah bread and smell the soup.

Then there’s a ton of dressing-up opportunities, such as putting on the kippah and tzatzik shawl worn at synagogue. The tzatzik is a four-cornered and fringed in a precise way to remember a commandment God gave to the Jews (he really was very particular). Turns out there are 613 commandments, not 10; it was at this point that my daughter decided she didn’t want to convert to Judaism after all.

I wasn't even trying to look spooky.

I'm not sure what army this is from, but I'm pretty sure my daughter was wrong and it's not Nazi.

The theatre area also has lots of clothes to dress up in. I accidentally became the Dybbuk, a bride possessed by the ghost of a woman who died before her wedding day, who was a character in one of the many Yiddish plays that were popular for decades – the last Yiddish theatre closed in 1970.

At the Kindertransport section, you wouldn’t expect to get many laughs, but there’s an  open suitcase where kids n fill in paper slips suggesting what they’d have taken with them; my daughter included everything she owns, not really understanding the concept of a suitcase, and another child wanted a teleporter, which is sensible.

Perhaps she survived because she threatened the guards with this terrifying doll.

How nice of Britain to allow Jewish kids refuge just before the second world war; shame we didn’t let their parents in with them.

From personal experience, I know that some children did make it to England with their parents, because my step-Nan was one of them. She and her mother were sent to an internment camp like all other German nationals; I’m not sure what conditions she’d been living in before, but she reckoned it was like Butlins.

In the school holidays, the museum has workshops and activities for children as well as adults in the large education space on the second floor.

I short, I’d highly recommend this museum for kids, as long as you don’t mind feeding them bagels and chicken soup for days afterwards.

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About 100museumsinayear

I've challenged myself to visit 100 museums in a year, from the massive to the miniscule, in London and other places.
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