The Jewish people have more history than most. They have been kicked out of country after country, and murdered by politicians seeking a scapegoat or by monarchs seeking to escape debt. Opportunities to settle must seem quite fragile. The newly redeveloped and reconfigured Manchester Jewish Museum is a celebration of just such an opportunity, and nicely done it is, too.
Ousted from England by Edward I in 1290, the Jews returned under Oliver Cromwell and some came to Manchester. Later, the burgeoning cotton trade attracted more and then came the pogroms in Russia, precipitated by the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, which created a wave of Jewish emigration, mostly to the US and the UK. Those who came to Manchester settled in Cheetham Hill. Since then, their successors have, in large part, moved to more prosperous districts.
The Manchester Jewish Museum platforms these stories and celebrates the melding of communities, explaining what Manchester did for the Jewish community – and what the community did for Manchester. Built around a synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road, the redevelopment was 10 years in the making and architect Katy Marks has done an excellent job. I already liked her work from the recent prize-winning redevelopment of the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and even my unpractised eye detects a similar melding (my word of the week) of old brick, glass and steel.
The synagogue, which the redevelopment is constructed around, dates from 1874 and was built for the Sephardi community. Sephardi Jews can trace their ancestry back to Spain and Portugal during the time of the Moors in 718 to 1502 CE, when they were kicked out by the conquering Christian King Ferdinand. Their community’s Moorish roots are recorded in the architecture of the synagogue: the arch above the Ark, the decoration on the pillars, and the designs in the wrought ironwork around the balcony. There is even an intentional mistake in the new annexe, representative of the notion that only God is perfect. The synagogue has been beautifully restored and is well worth a visit. It’s also the site of Laure Prouvost’s new installation The long waited, weighted, gathering, co-commissioned by Manchester Jewish Museum and Manchester International Festival, which will remain in place until October 2021. So there’s no excuse not to stop by.
The annexe houses the galleries, a learning kitchen and a café. The curator, Alex Cropper, has arranged the galleries around three themes: journeys, communities and identities, and draws on the museum’s collection, which exceeds 30,000 items. These include documents, objects and photographs, of course, but also listening points where we are privy to Jewish Mancunians relating their stories. There is also a digital device that allows you to interrogate some of the objects, drilling down into their provenance.
The Learning Kitchen (that appellation alone tells you a lot about the attitude of the organisation – they are not here to teach but to allow you to learn) will be utilised by school groups and adult classes to learn Jewish cookery skills. The design detail of the building is exemplified by a set of opening roof lights, which will be used at the festival of Sukkot, normally celebrated under the open sky.
The café is vegetarian and has a short, interesting menu, which includes a rather good version of the traditional bagel, cream cheese and lox, where the smoked salmon is replaced by marinated carrot. The texture is absolutely accurate, but I did miss the fishy taste. They also have some extremely good cake and a mint and green tea to which I am now addicted. All the produce, including the tea, is sourced from Manchester producers.
Much thought has gone into this redevelopment. The building is, naturally, accessible and sustainable, and the philosophy seems to be ‘we are Jewish, and we are Mancunian in equal measure’. It’s a celebration, there is nothing contentious here. I found it delightful and engaging and a welcome change from current political controversy.
Main image: Philip Vile, Manchester Jewish Museum, exterior day, 2021
Manchester Jewish Museum is open seven days a week to the public. The museum’s new vegetarian kosher-style café is open from 10am–4pm daily, and will be open later on Thursdays for its Thursday Lates programme of events from the autumn.
Tickets for the new Manchester Jewish Museum are available here.