Manchester´s Jewish Museum

FEATURE by Willard Manus

Manchester, U.K. ---"We need a Jewish museum like we need a ham sandwich."

In the face of such opposition thirty years ago (from a Jewish newspaper, no less), a group of determined Jews and historians in Manchester, England persevered and, without any kind of city or government help, raised enough money to open up the only museum of its kind in the United Kingdom.

The Jewish Museum of Manchester is an independent institution which operates under a private charter and is beholden only to its board of directors. Working out of a restored Sephardic temple built originally in 1874 (the second of its kind in the U.K.), the museum had fallen into disuse after WW II when its members began to desert the inner-city for the suburbs. In 1969 a few Jews formed a committee to write the history of the Jewish presence in Manchester, lest that history disappear with the shifting demographic tides. Bill Williams, a non-Jewish historian at the Polytechnic who was deeply interested in Manchester's past, was hired to research and write the book, "The Making of Manchester Jewry."

The reception was so positive that the idea of establishing a museum came into fruition. By choosing "The Gates of Prayer" synagogue at 190 Cheetham Hill Rd. as the site of the museum, a double benefit accrued to the community. The synagogue, which previously had served Sephardic worshippers, would be preserved and it would also provide an ideal setting for the historical artifacts comprising the museum's collection. These artifacts not only came from such official sources as city archives, but from private individuals who donated photographs, documents and items found in their attics and basements.

The Jewish Museum opened its doors in 1982 and since then has become a two-star national preserve, one which plays host to some 60,000 visitors a year (mostly non-Jewish) who are drawn not only by the graceful Moorish-style temple (designed originally by Edward Salomon) with its Sephardic patterns, Torah scrolls and stained-glass windows) but by the history it contains. The museum runs an educational program aimed at students and adults alike; among the latter are policemen, church clubs, nurses and teachers.

"We are a registered charity," said Don Rainger, the museum's administrator. "We survive on a shoestring budget dictated by private grants, with only one fulltime employee--myself--and a number of volunteers. We charge a small admission fee and sell educational materials, many of which are translated into other languages, including Welsh. We feel we are a bulwark against all the isms and extremists, a small but proud and non-dogmatic historical institution."

The Jewish presence in Manchester, the prototypical city of the Industrial Revolution, dates back to 1740 when the first settlers--mostly peddlers and hawkers--arrived and began to put down roots. Many of them had come from Poland. A Gentile innkeeper gave them a back room for religious ceremonies. A community sprang up around the inn, located in Poet's Corner in downtown Manchester, near Victoria Station. Red Bank was the next section the Jews moved into, after having established themselves with shops and small factories connected to the rag trade. An infusion of East European Jews swelled the community in the mid 1800s.

Lord Benjamin Marks, founder of Marks and Spencer and one of the mainstays of the Zionist movement in Britain, was born in Manchester and opened his first shop there.

By 1858 there were two synagogues in Manchester, one Orthodox, the other Reform. Neither remains, as the former was destroyed during The Blitz, the latter by urban renewal. The Sephardic influence in Manchester was not felt until the late 19th century, when cotton merchants came from places like Egypt and Morocco to trade. Since they were wealthy and successful, they lived in the High Town section of the city, far away from the slums (and the Ashkenazi).

Before long, Manchester had three Sephardic synagogues serving an estimated four thousand followers. The total Jewish population was approximately 38,000, the second largest after London. Among other noteworthy contemporary Jewish figures were Werner Mayer, principal of the King David School; Nathan Laski, chief of the Jewish community till 1941 (his son was the politician, Harold Laski); and Joseph Massel.

Massel (1850-1912) headed a Hebrew-English publishing house and was instrumental in bringing Dr. Chaim Weizmann to Manchester, where he worked for a time in the chemistry department of Manchester University (circa 1904). The proselytizing efforts of these men resulted in Manchester's becoming known as "the capital of English Zionism." Many Jews shared in the city's garment-trade prosperity and could therefore exert strong political influence on the British government. They were aided in their Zionist zeal by the editor of "The Manchester Guardian," who, even though non-Jewish, favored their cause.

The chronology and history of all these major events are on display in the Jewish Museum, thanks to a profusion of old newspapers, photos and personal testimonies. Visitors will also find histories of Jewish benevolent organizations, hospitals and working men's clubs, not to speak of amusing accounts of the plays and operas put on by the community's amateur theatrical societies.
The museum also highlights the exploits of such Jewish boxers as Sammy Ahrens and such writers as Louis Golding.

The role played by Jews in both major wars comes in for considerable attention, as well as the kind of discrimation they were subjected to in the past. During WW II, for example, many non-citizen Jews were placed in "enemy alien camps," much like the Japanese on the USA's west coast. Friction between Britain's Jews and His Majesty's government increased after WW II when the latter pursued a pro-Arab policy. The anti-semitic post-war British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, favored a Palestine policy that virtually abrogated the Balfour Declaration, which called for a Jewish national home in Palestine. As one writer said, "Bevin imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration. Nothing moved him, not even news of the thousands of Jewish survivors still held in displaced persons camps."

It's all there, the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane, encapsulated in one small, cozy, two-story building on the edge of downtown Manchester. Anyone planning a trip to the city would do well to spend a day there.

The museum is open Mon-Thurs, 10.30 a.m. to 4 p.m, and Sunday 10.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For other Jewish sites in Manchester, see A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe by Ben G. Frank (Pelican Books).