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A flashy new diamond

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nuseum Art feature

Sue Fox visits the revamped Manchester Jewish Museum and bemoans the lack of storage for an umbrella and raincoat.

My father, Jack Fox, who was an insurance broker, had his office in St Marks Lane, Cheetham Hill. There was a kosher slaughterer/ chicken shop and Mr Perlman the greengrocer in the narrow alley, On a visit back home from London where I fled when I was eighteen and had eaten Moussaka in a Greek restaurant near Goodge Street, I asked Mr Perlman if he had an aubergine. He shook his head. I described the shape and colour. He offered me an alternative. ‘A plum’, he said, showing me a ripe purple fruit. ‘It’s the same colour. Will that do?’  

I have the same feelings for a really good Moussaka that I have for the cake served at my mother’s afternoon bridge games.  Fuller’s coffee cake, covered in crackable white icing, topped with a circle of walnuts. The cake disappeared with so much of my childhood. I found a group online dedicated to reproducing the perfect Fullers Coffee Walnut Cake if you are interested. I gave up when the snow-white icing turned grey. It was the colour of the sky in Prestwich –  Monday’s washing before a Persil hot wash. A bit of a mouthful for Farrow and Ball.

Over the years, my brother and two closest school friends moved far South of Albert Square. Apart from a rare afternoon tea at the Wizard in Alderley Edge, none of us ever went to South Manchester when we were kids. It was a foreign land – where the  Sephardi Jews lived. They were a  very different community. It was much posher in South Manchester.

I haven’t been back to Cheetham Hill in a lifetime. Stretches of Cheetham Hill are, I’m told, pretty much no-go areas now. This is gangland and drug central. Auntie Lottie’s sweet shop is long gone. So is Mill Modes, the elegant dress shop. Was Della’s also in Cheetham Hill? It sold handbags that cost an unaffordable ten guineas. Like hundreds of brides before me, I had a wedding list at Allweiss the china emporium. Our Allegro dinner set was never completed.      

In the wholesale fashion trade, my brother, Colin, ordered my wedding dress from Ellis Gowns. I collected it from one of the  ‘Ladies Wear’ shops in Cheetham Hill. The veil – lace and crystal embossed flowers – was eventually cut up and remade into a confirmation dress for my cleaning lady’s daughter. The rest of the dress (a voluminous concoction for a top-heavy bride – newly on the Pill) was eventually deconstructed into what was known in those days as a blouse. Greying (me and the lace blouse) it hangs in my cupboard, having never been worn. I have been married for 51 years.

This week I went back to Manchester to stay with a school friend who, like me, grew up in Prestwich. She moved to Leafy Bowden years ago.   When the Jewish Museum re-opened in July she was one of the first visitors. Generously, she took me back there a few days ago. We caught the  Metro from Altrincham and then hopped on a  bus in Lever Street. It stopped outside the door of the Museum, on the opposite side of the road. The bus drove by Red Bank. Once one of the most impoverished slums in the area,  it is now, as much of Manchester, unrecognisable. Red Bank is awash with new glass-fronted office spaces and apartment blocks.  What was once a thriving Jewish area in Lower Cheetham Hill is now virtually 100% Asian. The buildings nearest the Museum are mainly fashion wholesalers and grill restaurants you wouldn’t fancy going into. The showroom windows are dressed with wigless models displaying bright, cheap, women’s clothes. A notice about parking in the side streets warns, ‘Take everything with you because if you don’t, someone else will.’   

I tried to work out how far up Cheetham Hill Road it was to where the Northern Hospital had stood. I had my tonsils out there and never got over having been told I was going down to the theatre. I was expecting balloons and entertainment but came back to the ward with a horrible sore throat. I couldn’t remember exactly where the Goldray Factory and showroom was. It was owned by my brother-in-law, Victor Goldstone’s family. My sister, Margot, was sometimes on Showroom duty before the new season’s collection was revealed. I found a letter she wrote to me in 1964. I was in America for ten weeks travelling on a Greyhound bus with the same friend who was now with me in the Museum. Together we read my sister’s description of an afternoon making chopped egg bridge rolls, Ritz crackers with cheese,  and pinwheels with anchovies, for the buyers. They were coming from exotic places in the North of England – Wigan, Bolton and Morecambe.     

The newly restored 1874 Grade II* Listed Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue is a beautiful space to sit and reflect

Manchester’s  Jewish Museum shines like a flashy new diamond. The original museum opened in 1984, housed in a Grade11* listed (former) Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. The six million pound redevelopment and extension are already drawing visitors from far and wide. The restoration of the synagogue is exquisite. Who knew there were still craftsmen with the skills to paint, gild and remake stained glass to such beauty? Alongside the synagogue is a modern, hands-on museum and learning centre. It’s not very big but is filled with a wealth of Jewish stories, memories, artefacts and experiences. It is a celebration of the past and a connection with the diverse communities who have made their home in North Manchester. Volunteers are kind, patient and helpful. Everyone seems to be finding their feet at this new venue. I found my grandfather, Eli Fox, in the museum. He died before I was born and had founded the Heaton Park Shul. Grandpa Eli was involved in many other community projects and he was the Fox behind the original Cassel Fox School in North Manchester. It’s still going strong. There was a gorgeous illuminated address behind glass,  commemorating the creation of the first Old Aged Home for Jews and a Shelter in Manchester. Dated 26 March 1911,  Eli Fox, Treasurer, was one of the signatures. When I told a volunteer that I had found my grandfather, she was as excited as I was, telling me that her mother often talked about ‘Foxes Shul’.

Cholent is featured and served at the kosher-style cafe at the museum, which reopened following renovations on July 2, 2021. (Chris Payne)

The museum’s cafe space is too small. When we were there, the ticket desk and cafe were pretty much all hands on deck. Volunteers were simultaneously serving lattes and checking off visitors. The food definitely sounds better than it is. My friend had eaten there on her first visit. She said it was dire. A shmear of smoked salmon had turned out to be a carrot. Hello?! Jewish and Cafes should be a marriage made in heaven. Hopefully, someone will change the concept and maybe have some outdoor seating and a gazebo to encourage people to stop by for a coffee and something sweet without necessarily doing the full Museum tour.    

The newly opened kosher-style cafe is part of a metal-exterior extension added to the Manchester Jewish Museum during two years of renovations that began in 2019. (Chris Payne)

There is nowhere to leave a small umbrella let alone an overnight bag or shopping. This is Manchester, for God’s sake!  A city not known for its sunny climate. Umbrellas and wet raincoats are never conducive to a pleasant visit to a museum. Please, somebody, find a safe space for ‘things’ before the weather turns!   

If you go after October you will be spared the immersive experience created by Laure Prouvost, a French artist living and working in Antwerp. In 2013, she won the Turner Prize. She has transformed the Ladies Gallery of the synagogue. I quote from the information: ‘Voices of the past will surround you. Using film, sound and textiles, Laure will transport you through the synagogue’s history, surrounded by the echoes of the lives that once resonated there.’ That’s what it says on the tin.   

‘The long waited, weighted, gathering’ by Laure Prouvost. Image by Michael Pollard.

The installation is the Emperor’s New Clothes. Obviously, the Museum was offered the chance/funding for a commission. The installation was part of the much-lauded Manchester Festival. It was an opportunity for publicity in the wider world. Perhaps, in the wider world, Prouvost’s imaginings appeal. Reading some of the reviews, I learned that her work is a triumph. Foraged  Jewish women like me, it is actually pretty dire. We were not the only ones to walk out. Even the volunteers I spoke to thought it was bonkers. From what I understood (which was barely anything), Laure Prouvost has interpreted the world of the women looking down through the gilded rails of the synagogue gallery upon the men below. Her film interpretation shows real live Safadi women of a certain age festooned with feathers and wings, floating on clouds. There are also pigeons, birds and plates of bite-sized delicious-looking Sephardi sweet cakes. They are presumably the pistachio, lemon and honeyed scents of Proust’s Madeleine. On the polished wooden ledges of the gallery, next to the gilded rails, there are elegant china cups, saucers and plates. On each plate sits a solitary, thin sugary, current disc from a packet of factory-made biscuits. (Peek Freans comes to mind.) Why isn’t there a homemade kichal or a Claudia Roden sweetmeat? I have never felt so let down by a biscuit. 

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Sue Fox is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing famous people for the Sunday Times, Times Magazine, and many magazines since she was 18.  She has also been associate producer on TV documentaries and a film archive.
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