While the museum holds a lot of quirky and fun objects, it is also home to many items of great historical importance. Though a large proportion of this collection is comprised of paper documents, accounts and records, it is the unique aesthetics of the objects that I feel hold the most interest. One such area of particular significance is the vast and varied collection of medals, which can be found both on display in the museum galleries, and in an impressive number of drawers in the museum stores.
Society Medals – The widest range of medals the museum holds are from Jewish Societies, most notably Order Achei Brith and Shield of Abraham. This was one of many ‘friendly societies’, which were established in England during the late 19th and much of the 20th century. As well as organising social events, these groups were formed to aid Jewish immigrants in times of illness and death in return for a small weekly payment. Social Clubs were also formed for young Jewish immigrants, such as the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Established in 1895, it is the UK’s oldest Jewish youth movement, and provided children with summer camps and educational classes in order to develop new skills and aid social mobility.
School Medals – The history of Jewish youth in Britain can also be explored through the collection of school and sports club documents and paraphernalia. As is still custom, children and teenagers were often rewarded for achievements in sport events and school participation, such as punctual attendance. While children today might be more interested in a music voucher, or if they are particularly lucky cold hard cash, these intricate medals hold onto the memories of events in a way which expendable awards cannot.
War Medals – While the objects above are a priceless means of preserving the social history of Jewish immigrants, perhaps the most valuable medals in the museum’s collection are concerned with war and conflict. Our current exhibition For King and Country? showcases the involvement of Jewish soldiers in the First World War, through personal accounts, photographs and objects. Medals awarded to Jews for other war and military services are also preserved by the museum, and it is a great honour to be entrusted with these objects, which for their recipients are entrenched with great personal significance.
To see more medals from the museum collection, as well as loans from the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum and British Library, check out our current exhibition which runs until 10 August 2014: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/kingandcountry
This Sunday, I had my first gig as the Jewish Museum’s Poet in Residence, talking with the wonderful artist and scholar Irene Wise about poet, painter and WWI soldier, Isaac Rosenberg. The museum’s current exhibition, For King and Country?, explores Jewish involvement in the First World War and includes some of Rosenberg’s sketches, as well as a draft of ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, the iconic poem that inspired T. S. Eliot to praise him as the “most remarkable” of the British First World War poets.
Surprisingly, on a hot and sunny July afternoon, the auditorium was full. Rosenberg’s writing clearly touched many people and our audience ranged from those whose interest had been sparked but who didn’t know much about his life and work, to several academics including his biographer, the WWI expert Jean Moorcroft Wilson. We were slightly intimidated at first, but everyone was lovely and the conversation became a collaborative one, with several members of the audience chipping in. The most touching moment was when one gentleman, Bernard, revealed he was Rosenberg’s nephew, the son of his sister Annie, who had painstakingly typed up Isaac’s poems when he had sent drafts to her enclosed with his letters from the Front.
We began by exploring Rosenberg’s home life and background and tracing how this Jewish boy from an impoverished background, who spoke Yiddish and didn’t learn English until he was eight, ended up studying at the Slade, befriending several of the major artists of the modernist period and acquiring as his patron, Edward Marsh, Churchill’s Private Secretary. What drove him to enlist and how did Private Rosenberg cope in the war when he was so small he was assigned to a “Bantam” regiment? Irene gave a fascinating analysis of his art, finding multiple references in his early work to classic paintings he’d viewed in the National Gallery, as well as unpicking the influence of his contemporaries at the Slade on his many sketches and self-portraits. I compared his development as an artist to his development as a poet, looking at his poetics as well as asking how much his Jewish roots affected his writing and what made him so original. Our audience was full of thoughts and ideas, and we finished with a sense of overwhelming sadness for such a talent to have been lost so young.
Having made many notes while looking around the exhibition and preparing for the talk, I’m now hoping to draft a poem of my own, inspired by Rosenberg’s life and work. Keep your eyes open for updates as I spend time writing in the galleries during August. And if you see me at the museum, I hope you’ll come over and say hello.
Editor’s note: Aviva will be in the museum galleries on Tuesday 5 August, Thursday 14 August, Tuesday 19 August, Thursday 28 August, from 12 noon to 4pm
In April 2013, as part of my Masters Degree program, I was required to undertake a three month work placement. As per the format of the course, I wrote applications to three very different institutions, which were then given to my supervisor, who would select a position based on my preferences and her academic guidance. So when my supervisor selected a placement in the Curatorial Department at the Jewish Museum, I was immediately suspicious of her reasoning. I confronted her, and my questions were met with a decidedly vague “most suitable applicant for the opportunity”. But in my mind, I knew the real reason. She had clearly ignored all my academic interests and focused on one tiny part of my application: the part where I said I was Jewish.
Why did I say that, I wondered to myself? Why did I think that would help my cause? I felt as if I was being shipped off to some far away island, and when I got there everyone would realise that I was completely and utterly unprepared. Soon they would discover that they had made a horrible mistake, and in no way was I suitable for the position. I wasn’t even really Jewish…
Except that I am. Ethnically and culturally, but not religiously Jewish. My mother’s family emigrated from the USSR to the United States in the mid 60s. At some point between then and marrying my father, she converted to Christianity, but the family was already rooted in a considerably established Jewish neighbourhood just outside of Boston, and this was where I grew up. I spent Passovers with other people’s families, made hamentaschen and kugel on weekends, and feasted on mysteriously labelled chocolates brought over from friends’ parents’ trips to Israel. I attended a constant stream of bar and bat mitzvahs, knew more Rachels and Sarahs than I could count on two hands, and was keenly aware than when discussing neighbourhood gossip, one had to preface whether you were talking about the Weintraubs who lived on Summit Ave., or the Weintraubs who lived on Beacon Street.
Yet I always felt a certain amount of guilt about not being Jewish enough. I never attended Hebrew school, and to this day the only letters I recognize are those on a dreidel. I can remember nothing after “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu…”, which seems even a bit much for who has never read anything from the Torah. Affectionately called the “goy” of my friendship group, no matter how often I pointed out that actually, technically I was Jewish, I was always identified (by others, to be clear) as part of the gentile minority at school, and in the larger community.
When my family moved to Britain after I finished high school, I again found myself in the minority, but for the opposite reasons. I was the only Jew in my extended social group, indeed for some of my peers I was the first Jew they had ever met. Suggestions of lox and bagels for lunch were met with blank stares, and my occasional Yiddish outbursts met no recognition. No one understood when I was tired from schlepping across London, or when never-ending queues were acknowledged with an exasperated “Oy gevalt!” Suddenly, all those cultural and social aspects of my Jewish identity, which I had always taken for granted, were drifting away. I felt the need to try and immerse myself in the community where I had previously been an outsider. So when the opportunity to be involved with a Jewish Museum arose, I grasped for it with everything I had. Including, so I thought, my greatest trick of all: I was Jewish. Yet my elation at the potential of being part of that world would quickly be crushed, or so I believed, by my own self-deceit. I could never be a part of that community. I was only pretending. I wasn’t really Jewish.
What started as a three month work placement grew into over a year-long internship, fully out of my own choice, and the infallible support of the Curatorial team. Far from the exclusive, traditional clique I feared, I was welcomed by a socially, politically and religiously diverse group of people whom I feel so privileged to have worked with. I have been a part of many incredible projects during my time here, from Amy Winehouse and Four Four Jew, to fascinating research for new and upcoming exhibitions yet to be publicly announced. But perhaps the important and personal lesson I’ve learned is what it means to be Jewish. It’s not about whether you’ve been to temple, or observe Shabbat. You don’t have to keep Kosher, or be fluent in Hebrew. Scholars and academics will argue the finer points of what it means to be one of “the chosen people” for the next eternity, but it won’t matter to me. I am Jewish, and that’s it. It means whatever you want it to be.
From the late 19th century a large influx of Jewish immigrants settled in the East End of London, bringing with them a wide variety of customs and activities. This included the very popular establishment of Yiddish theatre, whose use of the home dialect and relatable themes such as assimilation and poverty provided new immigrants with a great sense of community from both sides of the curtain.
Moustaches – While Yiddish theatre was extremely popular within the developing Jewish community, their limited disposable income meant that budgets were small, and most props and sets were handmade, sometimes by the actors themselves. The Jewish Museum stages a large number of these props, including moustaches and head pieces. These ensured that actors could play numerous parts in the same production, reducing costs and providing further entertainment for the audience.
Advertisements – Budget restrictions also meant that only very limited marketing could be used, particularly because plays often had a short run. Many promotional signs were painted by hand, and pictures on posters were created using specially-designed printing blocks consisting of wooden blocks with imprinted metal plates.
Programmes – As the Jewish community became more established, higher production values allowed for detailed theatre programmes and souvenirs. These objects are particularly fascinating, as they showcase popular Yiddish theatre actors and productions, as well as numerous advertisements for theatre sponsors.
With the second generation of Jewish immigrants came the adoption of English as a first language, and in turn the decline in Yiddish theatre. Today, while London’s West End continues to offer visitors world-renowned theatre productions, the Jewish Museum is able to ensure the legacy of London Yiddish theatre a final curtain call for generations to come.
Click here to learn more about Yiddish Theatre with our online exhibition.
The arrival of the World Cup leads me back to our recent football exhibition, Four Four Jew: Football, Fans and Faith which closed a few months ago, and is currently on display in a revised form at the Manchester Jewish Museum.
In one section of the exhibition we asked a simple question: who do you support and why? Visitors wrote their responses on customised red and yellow cards, and stuck them up for all to see on a large magnetic football pitch. I loved watching the cards go up, and change from day to day. The messages people wrote were silly, cheeky, surreal, moving, and sometimes quite surprising (who knew Partick Thistle were the greatest team in the world?)
These comments perfectly encapsulate the wit and humour (sometimes unintended) of the humble football fan. Ten of my favourites are featured here, together with some lessons they teach us about football fans:
1. Football fans can be quite surreal
2. They can sometimes trick themselves into thinking things that aren’t quite true
3. Some of them hate football
4. Lots of them hate Manchester United
5. And, finally, some of them are very wise
This year, the Jewish Museum is extremely proud to be hosting the annual London Volunteers in Museums Awards in September. The LVMAs recognise the amazing work volunteers do across museums in London and are the culmination of months of blood, sweat and tears by the Awards Committee, on which I sit. Since the museum reopened in 2010, we have featured in the Going the Extra Mile, Best Team, Long Service and Special Youth categories. Last year, Yasmin Riley (pictured below, far right) won the Special Youth Award for her outstanding contribution to the museum since the age of 17.
Our volunteer team, as with many other museums, is the lifeblood of the organisation. All visitors meet volunteers in our Galleries, Shop and on the Welcome Desk. In the first quarter of 2014 alone, our Visitor Services Volunteers have already given an astonishing 2,220 hours. Volunteers give our visitors a personal and insightful aspect to their visit and we are constantly overwhelmed by their continued support and passion for the museum.
This morning saw the official launch of the 2014 awards here at the Jewish Museum, as we were joined by some of last year’s winners, members of the organising committee and the Mayor’s Adviser for Volunteering, Team London, Charities and Sponsorship, Veronica Wadley. Last year’s event saw around 120 guests in attendance on HMS Belfast and this year it is hoped that there will be even more volunteers and supporters from the heritage community invitied. We look forward to this exciting event happening in our own museum.
Around nine or ten years ago I noticed an advertisement in the London Jewish News for volunteers at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. I realised I had never been to the museum and the idea of volunteering appealed to me, so I made an appointment and was delighted to be offered the role. The museum was such a lovely place to visit that I regretted not having visited before.
I spent many enjoyable hours with my very knowledgeable fellow volunteers helping visitors, explaining the meaning and use of the objects, and learning a lot myself.
The museum then closed for a complete refurbishment for three years and during this time some of us continued to volunteer at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City manning an exhibition.
Four years ago we reopened as a larger museum with even more objects in the beautiful galleries and a café too. I wanted to learn a new skill so when we were asked to pick a role I chose to work in the renovated shop. We had to go through training to operate the new computerised till, where on my first day I met my partner in the shop, Meta, and we have been “stuck together” ever since. We love each other’s company and share the same enthusiasm for retail. Our job involves selling admission tickets to the museum, as well as shop goods, and helping visitors with enquiries ranging from directions to questions about various aspects of the museum. People have also brought in objects which they need advice on and we help get them on the right track.
We are very well looked after by Leonie and Emma (ed: our Visitors Services team) who organise outings with food and other events and seminars which keep us all involved. They are always on hand to offer support especially when Meta or I press a wrong button on the till!
On going to the Religion Gallery one day I found a woman standing in front of the display of Hanukah lamps with tears pouring down her face. I put my arm round her and she pointed to the wooden one and said, simply, “My grandfather made it.” The wooden lamp is intricately carved with the Hanukah blessing for the lighting of the candles on the frame. Its stem has two winged beasts and a network of leafed branches. All of which sits on a carved stand. It was lovingly made by Moshe Leser for his son’s wedding in 1936 and given to the museum by his widow. It must have been well used by his family as some of the metal candle holders are missing. Moshe Leser lived in Tamow, Poland, and the fretwork carving was a craft of his village. He stayed in Poland but his son and daughter-in-law came to England before the War. They had two daughters. The following week the woman returned with a friend and proudly said to her, “Look what my grandfather made.” Though not used, it is an object of great significance not only for the museum but for the two daughters.
Happy International Workers’ Day! To mark the occasion we have turned around our beloved London Jewish Bakers’ Union banner to display the Yiddish side (rather than the English side) for a limited time. The London Jewish Bakers’ Union was one of the longest lived Jewish trade unions, operating from 1905 to 1970, and this painted silk banner from around 1925 is one of only two surviving Jewish union banners in Britain.
The Jewish Museum has been acquiring material since the early 1930s, with a high proportion relating to social history and trade. As a result, we have amassed a large collection of some very specific items, which to the casual observer, may seem slightly bizarre.
Buttons – Open any drawer in the store and there is a decent chance you will find a box of buttons, usually accompanied by some reels of thread or thimbles. This is because a great number of Jewish migrants who came to London at the end of the 19th Century became tailors, as well as furniture, boot and hat makers.
Scissors – Though this idea of the Jewish tailor has become something of a stereotype, the large proportion of objects in our collection relating to the trade reflects this trend. The sheer number of heavy tailoring scissors we have acquired is particularly impressive, if a little sinister when seen out of context.
Irons – I wonder how many irons the average social history museum has. If our collection is anything to go by, I’m guessing enough to give any downtrodden housewife a panic attack. As for the Jewish Museum, we have managed to amass a rather impressive 17 – yes, I did count them. The majority of these would have been used in trade, as opposed to domestic settings, and are significantly heavier than today’s plastic revelations. This is because creases and folds had to be smoothed out with both heat and pressure, as irons could not reach the high temperatures that they can today.
With the 20th century came mass production and technological innovation, causing a significant drop in independent tailoring businesses. While some of these objects are now practically obsolete, the history they hold is enough to ensure their place in our permanent collection – though we won’t be looking to in-crease our number of irons any time soon.