When Plymouth’s tiny Jewish community sold many of their antique artefacts at the end of last year to help pay for the upkeep of their 18th-century listed synagogue, there were the usual mutterings about Anglo-Jewry flogging off the family silver.
Historic items such as these often end up overseas; but at least some parts of the Plymouth collection were saved for the nation. They were bought by the British Museum in London and, now back from the conservators, they are going on view from Monday.
They will form part of a special display of Judaica, entitled “Jewish Living and Giving”, which celebrates the 250-year-old connection between British Jewry and the museum. Its first acquisitions of Judaica actually go back to the year that the institution opened its doors to the public in 1759. The new display may be a small — a couple of cabinets — but it will occupy a prominent place in the Enlightenment Gallery, the permanent shrine to the museum’s pioneering early collectors. Some of the Jewish artefacts may not have been exhibited for more than a century.
It all began with the remarkable Solomon da Costa, an 18th-century merchant, scholar and philanthropist who was determined to ensure Judaism a place within the nation’s cultural heritage. He donated to the museum 180 Hebrew books and manuscripts which had originally been the intended gift of London’s new Jewish community to Charles II in 1660.
The books had at that time been sent to be bound in leather and emblazoned in gold with the royal cipher but the king’s librarians neglected to pay the bill, so they never made it to their royal destination; eventually, the bookbinder’s widow sold them and they were later snapped up by da Costa. His letter, accompanying the donation, hailed the new museum as “a palace full of all good things”, preserving them in perpetuity “both for the stranger and for him that is born in the land… from generation to generation.”
The European Commission has awarded a 1.5 million-euro grant to a project to make the Judaica collections of 12 museums and libraries across the continent available online.
Costing three million euros overall, the project will include books and digital images of objects and artefacts held in institutions such as the British Library.
“Judaica Europeana will begin by digitising millions of pages and thousands of items selected from the collections,” said Lena Stanley-Clamp, the London-based director of the European Association for Jewish Culture.
One highlight of the new display is a piece from the Plymouth collection, an unusual spice-box for havdalah dating from the early 19th century: rather than the more common tower design, it consists of four circular compartments of delicate silver filigree. “We were thrilled to acquire it,” said Beverley Nenk, a medievalist who now curates the Judaica collection. “It may have come from India originally. This sort of filigree was imported for wealthy aristocratic ladies in Europe. It was a high-status object. It still had traces of brown powder from the spices used, which we had carefully extracted in our laboratory.”
You can also see two examples of ceremonial golden wedding rings used in London, one which sports a miniature Temple and another which carries a heart-shaped plaque inscribed with the word “Mazeltov”. “One of the great treasures,” according to Ms Nenk, is an embroidered Torah binder from the 18th century, which was originally the swaddling-cloth used at the circumcision of Mordechai Gimpel. After the brit, the cloth square would have been cut into strips and then sewn together for synagogue use. Its delightful illustrations include the astrological sign Scorpio and a wedding ceremony, reflecting the traditional blessing that a new baby should grow up to enjoy “Torah, chupah and good deeds”.
Then there is the circumcision shield of 18th-century mohel, Joshua Halevi, engraved with the words tahor — “pure” — Sephardi (no doubt to distinguish him from the Ashkenazi plebs).
The museum is not only the place currently celebrating its Judaica holdings: Oxford’s Bodleain Library has chosen, as one of its two special exhibitions this year, to display some of its invaluable store of medieval Hebrew manuscripts. Apart from being a scholar’s dream, they are frequently showcases of decorative illustration which make them also works of art. “The Bodleian’s Hebrew collection is the most comprehensive in the world,” said Piet van Boxel, its curator and co-author of a book on the exhibition. “Scholars know that, but we wanted to bring it to the attention of the wider public.”
The focus of the exhibition is the interaction between Jews and the surrounding non-Jewish societies, reflected in the design and the artistry of the books. The Bodleian’s acquisitions in Hebrew reach back to the beginning of the 17th century — it produced its first Judaica catalogue in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot — demonstrating the interest of Christian scholars in Jewish writings.
These early manuscripts have enormous educational value beyond the specialist world of academic research, Dr van Boxel points out. “I took a group of kids from the cheder round the exhibition who were preparing for barmitzvah, one for GCSE. At the beginning, I asked them, ‘When I say Jewish history, what comes to mind?’ One said, ‘ghetto’. Another said, ‘moneylending.’”
Instead, the Bodleain’s textual treasures offer a far more nuanced picture of medieval Jewish history, bearing witness to instances of co-operation and cultural exchange that did take place between Jews and Christians or Muslims.