It’s difficult to believe that the Manchester Jewish Museum is 25 years old.
Gosh, I was there before it was invented. But I wasn’t around before it was a mote in the eye of founding Life President Bill Williams who must now be knocking on for 30!
I’m rather pleased to report that I’ve known Bill since the early 70s when I was a mere junior hack and his work recording the history of the Manchester Jewish community was also in its infancy.
If I remember the story correctly – I’m sure he won’t mind too much if I tell it for him – Bill had an unusual background as a Roman Catholic child in Non-Conformist Wales, which gives him an unusual empathy with Jewish alienation.
More practically, as an historian he was infuriated by the demise and destruction of many local Jewish landmarks, most especially that of the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road, Manchester which was allowed to fall derelict about the time I started work.
I joined his first conducted walking tour around the old Jewish Quarter of Cheetham Hill and attended two farewells for the ‘Great’. I remember that a final Shabbat (Sabbath) morning service was followed by a Sunday afternoon event to mark its closure as a place of worship. But people present at these services seemed unbothered about the building’s future, as the congregation of the “Manchester Great and New Synagogue” was – and continues to be – secure under the tutelage of its much-loved minister, Rev Gabriel Brodie.
Indeed, someone who must remain nameless may be remembered best for writing:
“We need a Jewish museum like we need a ham sandwich!”
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
So upset was Bill by the sad ending of the ‘Great’ that he, along with a few far-sighted members of the original Jewish Historical Society in Manchester, worked to ensure that the same fate was not suffered by the neighbouring Sephardi congregation, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.
I also attended the Shabbat morning ‘funeral’ for this synagogue, now deconsecrated but still the oldest surviving synagogue building in Manchester, completed in 1874 and listed Grade II.
As outlined on the museum’s website, “it is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture, executed in Moorish style. Particularly noteworthy are the splendid stained glass windows and the distinctive cast-iron fitments”.
It’s truly remarkable what was achieved during the building’s restoration and conversion into a museum, as the first major job must have been a massive roof repair: Those of us in the ladies’ gallery during that last service were showered by traditional Manchester rain and as we walked home that day, we wondered if and when the dream of a museum would be realised.
In truth, Bill and his colleagues have saved much more than an important local building. They also helped to restore some balance and a form of sanity to a situation in which those with too much power and a paucity of imagination had pathetically humdrum ideas about how public money should be spent. Thus was it ever.
Times and fashions change and since it reopened in 1984 the fine building has served to “chronicle the lives of Jewish people in Manchester and their contribution to making the city what it is today”. It may also have created a little extra history for itself.
Certainly it has hosted some lovely events – the staging of a couple of striking plays and wonderful readings; the re-enactment of a period wedding ceremony – and of course it was opened formally by the Duke of Gloucester and visited by the Queen during her Golden Jubilee year.
As researching family history is now ‘cool’, perhaps Bill’s long struggle has been vindicated. The use of oral documentation in studying the lives of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of history is now standard in his profession.
It was little enough recognition when he was made a Fellow of the local Centre for Jewish Studies from which he recently retired. I hope he is offered more than that before much else becomes the stuff of history.
Luckily, Bill continues to lecture and write. Indeed, when I was searching for an extra-special present for my close friend’s **th birthday, I spotted a copy of his lovely Jewish Manchester: An Illustrated History.
She was absolutely thrilled to bits.
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