A Yaakov in King Arthur’s Court: Jewish Museums Present History of Britain’s Jews

Medieval mikveh on permanent display at the Jewish Museum London
Medieval mikveh on permanent display at the Jewish Museum London (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum London)

Would you care for some tea and crumpets with your gefilte fish?

The Jewish Museum of Maryland partnered with the Jewish Museum London to give a virtual presentation on the history of Britain’s Jewish community on Aug. 9.

The event was part of a larger collaboration that also includes the Jewish Museum of Australia and the Jewish Museum of South Africa, said Trillion Attwood, the director of public programs and visitor experience at JMM. Each of the four museums plans to give online, historical presentations on their Jewish community to the communities of all four regions.

According to Attwood, the aim of each presentation, including the one given by the London museum, is to provide a better understanding of each community, from the initial arrival of its first Jewish settlers to the lives of that Jewish community in modern times.

Jewish Museum London
Jewish Museum London (Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the Jewish Museum London).

The Jewish Museum London’s presentation gave an overview of the experience of British Jews from the arrival of the first Jewish migrants in 1066, to the community’s expulsion by King Edward I in 1290, to their readmission in the 1600s. Frances Jeens, the Jewish Museum London’s interim museum director, pointed to a medieval mikvah and an exploration of London’s East End as highlights of the virtual “tour,” along with a closer look at the Kindertransport rescue, in which thousands of Jewish children were brought from Nazi-controlled nations to new homes in the United Kingdom before the war. The presentation ended with a look at one family’s experience with post-war migration to Britain.

Attwood initially had the idea for this series following JMM’s decision to switch to virtual programming, which, for all its challenges, created new opportunities, she said. JMM began by reaching out to the Australian museum as a potential partner and received an enthusiastic reply. Heartened by their response, the new partnership began looking for other English-language institutions willing to participate, eventually finding the museums in London and South Africa receptive to the proposal.

Attwood was particularly excited about the Q&A session toward the end of the event, viewing it as a unique chance for different Jewish communities otherwise separated by borders and oceans to interact with each other. “Questions will be coming both from America and South Africa simultaneously,” she said, “which I think could really lead to a fascinating discussion and comparison of different Jewish experience across the globe.”

Attwood described the joint events as the type of collaboration that museums would have had difficulty imagining prior to COVID-19 and the ongoing era of virtual interaction. The pandemic, she said, forced JMM “to think about how we can take this current situation and take this technology and use it to give us an opportunity to deliver a unique experience that wouldn’t have been possible prior.”

Tracie Guy-Decker, JMM’s deputy director, concurred with Attwood and added that the museum didn’t want to do “a watered-down version of what we did in the before times, but really coming up with ways that leverage the current situation, and so I think that this series does that beautifully.”

Attwood hopes to follow this series up with similar collaborations with groups in other countries in the future, she said. Guy-Decker added that the current series represented a way to work out the “kinks” before pursuing those future projects. Additionally, JMM is also looking at future collaborations with U.S.-based groups like Washington, D.C.’s Capital Jewish Museum (currently under construction) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, she said.

Guy-Decker hoped that the series would help deconstruct the idea that there is a single Jewish experience by highlighting the variety of Jewish experiences across borders. “Sometimes because something is ‘normal’ for us,” she said, “we start to think that that’s normal for everyone. … It’s totally different for how Jews came to be in Britain and how they now live, different ways of immigrating, different ways of assimilating, acculturating, making their home.”

Jeens expressed her hope that the “tour will highlight the complex reasons and motivations for Jewish migration to Britain over the last 1000 years. By joining the tour, the audience will be able to discover that each one of these moments in history sheds light on how the diverse Jewish life of today’s Britain came to be and the genuine contribution Jewish migrants have made to British society.”

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