I’m very interested in Jewish life around the world, so on our recent visit to London when my kids and had just a few hours to do some exploring, I led them to the city’s Jewish Museum called the London Museum of Jewish Life. Located in one of my favorite London neighborhoods, Camden, it was rather easy for us to get to from our hotel in Belsize Park in an old Victorian building.
The museum was founded in 1983 as the Museum of the Jewish East End with the aim of rescuing and preserving the disappearing heritage of London’s East End – the heartland of Jewish settlement in Britain. While the East End has remained an important focus, the Museum expanded to reflect the diverse roots and social history of Jewish people across London, including the experiences of refugees from Nazism. It also developed an acclaimed programme of Holocaust and anti-racist education.
Given the fact that I’m from New York, where we have an amazing Jewish Museum, I can honestly say I was impressed with this museum. It’s not cheap to get in – adults cost about 7 pounds, kids 3.5 pounds, but I found it really worth it.
We started on the top floor at an exhibit I was particularly interested in called “Entertaining the Nation”. The exhibit tells the untold story of Jewish contribution to British entertainment from Victorian music hall to the stars of today…which is pretty massive and impressive. Jewish entertainers have brightened our lives for decades – in music, stage and screen. We are all familiar with TV and movie stars such as Peter Sellers, Sid James or Simon Amstell, as well as famous directors and writers like Mike Leigh and Harold Pinter behind the scenes, and singers from Frankie Vaughan and Alma Cogan to Marc Bolan and Amy Winehouse. But did you know that The Beatles, Rolling Stonesand Sex Pistols all had Jewish managers? Or that the classic English Ealing comedies were created by Michael Balcon, the son of Jewish immigrants? Who knew that Mike Leigh and Sacha Baron Cohen were members of Habonim?
This ground-breaking exhibition explores the stories behind these household names through a fascinating display of costumes, props, vintage photographs, posters and hands-on objects as well as archive footage and newly commissioned films, in our 1920s inspired cinema.
It’s a really good exhibit and I loved some of the quotes on the walls like this one:
“I wasn’t baptized. I wasn’t Bar Mitzvah’ed. I suppose my basic religion is doing un to others as they would do to me.” – Peter Sellers
The film about British Jewish Cinema is also excellent. Called “Playing Jewish,” it talks about how the portrayal of Jews has evolved over time, and the stereotypes that are pushed over and over again.
Then we went to to explore the other floors. We studies the history of British Jewry on one floor. Highlights include an
evocation of a Jewish East End street, bringing to life the sights and sounds of this immigrant quarter of London; an interactive map exploring the history of Jewish settlement around the UK; and poignant displays relating to refugees from Nazism, including the 10,000 unaccompanied children who came to Britain on the Kindertransport. There are fun and engaging activities for visitors of all ages, and my kids were no exception, include a great migration board game, Yiddish theatre karaoke and an interactive discovery table in the Living Community display.
The Judaism: A Living Faith is a small, lovely gallery that showcases the Museum’s outstanding collection of Jewish ceremonial art and explores Judaism as a living religious tradition. With an interactive Torah display at its centre, the gallery explores Jewish religious practice and traditions in the home and synagogue, using multimedia and hands-on displays to engage visitors of all ages. Highlights include a 17th-century Venetian synagogue Ark, magnificent Torah decorations, silver Hanukah lamps and Passover plates. While much smaller than the Jewish Museum’s Judaica collection, it was perfect for my short-attention span kids and they really enjoyed the collection, particularly the set Shabbat table.
We stepped into the Holocaust Gallery but I didn’t explain it to my children and only stayed for a short time. I am not ready to delve into that subject, although when we were in the Jewish part of Paris, I did allude to the period. But my kids, ages 6 and 8, are nowhere near ready for that kind of knowledge.
All in all, it was a very successful morning. We then headed to the electric Camden market for a stroll. How could I resist?
The museum is located at Jewish Museum Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, Camden Town, London NW1 7NB.