Yesterday, I read that the Lonely Planet travel guide has proclaimed Manchester to be the cool city to visit in 2023. The nearest city to my home (very slightly closer than Liverpool), I don’t think of Manchester as being particularly exciting or attractive – the city centre at least – though there are locations beyond the bustling centre that are well worth a visit.
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but perhaps I should try looking at Manchester through fresh eyes. Inspired by some of the Lonely Planet recommendations for Manchester day trips and short breaks, I plan to explore more of the city throughout 2023, highlighting some of my favourite places and discovering others, including some lesser-known gems. For once, it seems I am ahead of the trend, having already made my first trip to Manchester in this first week of the year.
There has been an established Jewish community in Manchester since the 1770s, based at first in the commercial district on the northern edge of the city centre, and later expanding further northward, towards Salford and Bury, as the community grew. It continues to grow, being the largest Jewish community outside London, its numbers increasing year-on-year as the cost of living in London makes Manchester a more affordable option. I was surprised to learn that the only other British Jewish community which is still growing is in Gateshead.
Cheetham Hill is a relatively short walk out of the city centre though, as the name suggests, it is actually a hill, so regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I did not walk, opting instead to take a five minute bus ride. The Jewish Museum is on the site of the former Sephardi synagogue, established in 1874 and designed by Jewish architect Edward Salomons to serve the thriving community. The stunning interior design reflects the Moorish architecture and aesthetics of Spain and Portugal where Sephardi Judaism has its roots.
By the 1970s, the Cheetham Hill Jewish community started to move further towards the suburbs and numbers attending the synagogue started to fall. In 1982, planning began to turn the synagogue into the Jewish Museum, a place to capture the history and heritage of Manchester Jewry and to tell the stories of its people. Opening its doors to visitors in 1984, the museum is now a grade 2 listed building. In 2019 the museum temporarily closed to undergo a £6 million capital development including full renovation and restoration. Conservation experts, historic painters and stained glass specialists were all involved in painstakingly researching and restoring the synagogue to its original condition. An extension in a modern Moorish style wonderfully complements the 19th century building.
Booking is recommended, as the museum hosts school parties and other large groups of visitors, but I turned up on a wet Wednesday afternoon when it was quiet. The £6 admission fee includes as many return visits as I like within one year, which is excellent value and which I will be taking advantage of, in order to view the beautiful stained glass in the better light of a sunny day.
As it was quiet, I was very fortunate to have the volunteer guides almost to myself at certain points in the tour. An informative and enthusiastic lady allowed me time to take photographs (I had thought I might not be allowed, but there was no problem at all) and led me through the exhibition areas of the new building, where there is a lift for any who need it and toilet facilities. My guide explained that the museum had been successful in its bid for National Lottery capital investment because of its unique pitch: to tell the story of Manchester Jews. Where many Jewish museums focus on the holocaust, the diaspora and Zionism and the state of Israel, this space was to be about the narratives, experiences and contributions of Jewish people and communities in this city.
Along one corridor were several display cases housing artefacts of Jewish life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Photographs showed families and individuals who came to live in Manchester in those years, some of them having recorded their stories for posterity. It was quite moving, listening to voices from the past, relating their experiences of arriving and settling in their new country and in Manchester specifically. The term ‘Landsleit’ refers to when Jews from the same towns and cities in Europe emigrate and set up new communities. Manchester immigrants sought the familiarity and support of those with a common background and language who could help them settle into their new lives. It was bittersweet listening to one old lady describing her efforts to learn English as quickly as possible because she didn’t want to speak German any more. Mancunian voices with hints of accents told tales of arriving by boat in Liverpool, or by train, and making their way to Manchester, grateful to be welcomed by family or friends already here. Another spoke of starting work in a sewing factory, already with some experience of using a machine and eager to become an accomplished seamstress. She refused to make the brews and sweep the floor, insisting that she had come to learn how to “make a coat,” a goal she achieved.
I had never been inside a synagogue before, so was quite excited to enter the older part of the museum. My next volunteer guide, David, took over. Another visitor joined us, coming to the museum as part of a trip to Manchester, possibly or possibly not inspired by Lonely Planet. David explained how the synagogue had come into being, the role it played in the Sephardi community throughout the century it was in use and told us about its layout and design. He was happy to answer our questions and, being a member of the Manchester Jewish community himself, had first hand knowledge to share.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit and feeling much better informed about a faith group and culture which has played an important part in Manchester’s history – especially its commerce – I left the museum to a visual treat. Darkness had descended and the building illuminated the streetscape beautifully, a very definite upside to visiting on a short, winter day.