Judaica first for British Museum

For the first time, the London-based museum has dedicated an entire exhibition to Judaica


One of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions, the British Museum in London, has arranged its first permanent display of Judaica.

A case in its newly reopened gallery 46, on post-medieval society, is now dedicated to artefacts that represent the Jewish presence in Britain. The feature is indirectly the result of the museum’s new Islamic gallery, which was due to open on Thursday. Its construction required physical alterations to the adjoining post-medieval gallery, which was closed to the public for over a year.

That enabled Beverley Nenk, curator of medieval collections and Judaica, to bring together some of the Jewish exhibits which had previously been spread around the museum.

“I managed to get a case for a permanent display of European Judaica, which is the first time this has happened,” Ms Nenk explained.

The British Museum began acquiring Jewish objects in the late Victorian times after the great Anglo-Jewish Exhibition in the Royal Albert Hall of 1887. The objects on display show that Jews have lived in Britain for several centuries and settled across the country — in places such as Plymouth, Bristol and Birmingham. Torah silverware — which the museum acquired only eight years ago — from Britain’s oldest functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in Plymouth can now be seen.

The collection also includes a clover leaf-shaped havdalah spice-box with four compartments, which according to the inscription was donated to a minyan room at Plymouth Dock, now Devonport, where Jewish traders supplied the Navy.

The spice box was then given to the “shul” (the word is spelt in Hebrew letters in the inscription) in 1844. “It’s unusual because spice-boxes are usually in the shape of a tower,” Ms Nenk explained.

“We think it wasn’t originally designed for havdalah. From the type of filigree, it is probably Indian in origin. When we got it, there were traces of powder from the spices.”

A simple gold band, while it may not look anything special, is “really a treasure,” she said, “because of the story it tells about the early Sephardi community.” The inscription inside the ring contains an abbreviation for “mazal tov” and records it was used for the wedding of Joshua and Judith Tsarfati in 1699.

They must have worshipped at Creechurch Lane, the first synagogue established after the resettlement of the Jews in England in 1656.

Other items which can be viewed include an antique circumcision shield used by a mohel, an amulet inscribed with the names of the four rivers of Eden and 18th-century kosher seals attached to food — “these are occasionally brought up by metal detector finds,” she said.

She is still keen to acquire items when the opportunity arises: a number of pieces of contemporary silver, including a kiddush set, made by Mila Tanya Griebel appeared in the “Living with the Gods” special exhibition last year.

And you can still find objects of Jewish interest elsewhere in the museum: including a hoard of 13th century coins buried under a house in Colchester that is believed to have belonged to Aaron, son of Samuel and an enamelled circumcision knife donated by the Rothschild family as part of a collection from Waddesdon Manor.

In another exhibit, the silver Torah pointer (yad) below from Isfahan in central Iran can be seen in the new Albikhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum. Its decoration includes raised, tear-shaped elements inlaid with lapis lazuli and cornelian or glass.


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive