Secrets of the Jewish Museum

by Larry Ross, Museum Volunteer

The Bakers’ Banner on the upper ground floor is one of the most stunning items in the museum (click here for images), yet so many people just look briefly and then walk past it. But the whole story is fascinating. 

Many of the Jews who came to Britain in the late nineteenth century from Russia and Poland got off the boat here because they were told they had reached New York. Happily for us, they were here, and were falling over backwards to be British. 

They rushed off to the East End to start working and, knowing that Brits have Unions, the bakers decided to form their own Union, the Jewish Bakers’ Union. As recent immigrants, they could not speak English, so spoke Yiddish instead, which is a language from the middle of Europe written with the Hebrew Alphabet. 

The Hebrew letters in the middle say “Yiddishe Bakers Union”, three English words written in Yiddish phonetics. As we went into the 20th century, Jews assimilated and could “pass” as British. They no longer needed their own Unions as they could join any Union, but this banner remains a lovely souvenir of those days. 


The beautiful Ark (left) in our Judaism Gallery comes from Venice and dates from the 17th century. When it was discovered in 1932 it was being used as a wardrobe for the servants’ coats in a stately home in the far north of England. It was restored to its original magnificence and installed in the then Jewish Museum in Tavistock Square when it opened. It is still here in the Jewish Museum today.

Many items in our collection, sometimes unknowingly, can show the spectrum of different strands of Judaism. There is a Sefer Torah in every synagogue in the world, as well as in our Judaism Gallery. As such, it at first seems like the very thing that would unite all branches of Judaism. However, what many people do not realise is that in an Orthodox synagogue the complete scroll is read each year, whereas in a Reform or Liberal synagogue, it takes three years. You can also spend time with our ‘Ask the Rabbi’ interactive, posing questions to any one of four Rabbis – one Liberal, one Reform, one Masorti and one mainstream Orthodox. Asking them the same question can get you four different answers!

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