One Jewish culture, many voices

Have we really sleepwalked into multicultural segregation? The poet Michael Rosen visits the reopene

"The new Jewish Museum is now open. Following a £10m investment, we have created not just an enlarged home for our internationally acclaimed collections but also an inspirational place for you to explore Jewish culture, heritage and identity."

At other times, this would have been an unproblematic announcement, but we have been told by Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Trevor Phillips and Melanie Phillips that we have sleepwalked into segregation; that multiculturalism has failed, it is dead, it has divided a United Kingdom and harboured terrorism. In its place, it seems, we should be finding an essence of Britishness.

So what am I doing exploring "Jewish culture, heritage and identity"? Shouldn't I be in the Tower of London looking at the Crown jewels? Instead, I'm reading a timeline in this Jewish Museum, where it says: "1222: a deacon converts to Judaism when he falls in love with a Jewish woman. He is later burnt outside the walls of Oxford."

First I feel bad. That poor deacon. He didn't deserve that. If he wanted to marry a Jewish woman, surely they could have let him? Maybe they had worked out a nice way of life: two Sabbaths, long discussions about keeping kosher. He asks her if she's ever tasted pork. She admits, yes she has. So she asks him, when he was a young man and thinking he might be a priest, did he ever have sex? He admits, yes, he did. She looks him in the eye, "It's better than bacon, eh?" And then they killed him for it.

But then, remembering how wrong multiculturalism is, I say to myself, stop reading this stuff. What would Melanie say? Wouldn't she tell me that this exhibit "promoted a lethally ­divisive culture of separateness"? And, "even worse", that it "causes the moral paralysis of 'victim culture'"? So now that I'm lethally divided and morally paralysed, I glance at my catalogue for help.

For a moment, I feel reassured to see that the museum is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. But no, in my ear comes David Cameron telling me that "state multiculturalism" was "wrong-headed" because it involved "granting financial aid for artistic and other projects purely on account of ethnic background - with various groups, purporting to represent various minorities, competing for money against each other".

By now, I'm standing in front of what to my secular eyes looks for a moment like a large, painted cupboard - albeit a gilded, pillared, baroque cupboard. I look down at the label. This was once an ark - where, in the synagogue, the scrolls of the Torah are kept - and it says it's probably from Venice. So what's it doing here? It was discovered by an antiquarian bookseller at an auction at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland, where it had been used as a wardrobe in a steward's bedroom. So this was aristocratic loot? This is what it must mean in the catalogue where it says that "the new galleries bring our collections to life by placing the Jewish story into the wider context of British history".

Nearby are rows of sacred silverware, each piece an example of astonishing craftsman-ship. One ornate menorah, for holding the Hanukkah candles, is more like a miniature stage set. I think of times I've got up close to look at a carving in a church and again there's Melanie telling me of the folly of promoting the idea that "minority cultures" could be "held to be equal if not superior to the values and traditions of the indigenous majority". The guilt thing gets me again. Yes, I admit, for a moment I was thinking that this bit of silverwork was as good as anything I've seen anywhere else. But I can choke that back down for you, Mel.

But you know how it is, as that Hampstead Jewish refugee Freud said - even as you choke one thing down, something else pops up. When my father died, among his things were two engraved silver cups. I had put them to one side, meaning to ask someone where, how and when they were used. And there they are! I smack my head, in the same way he used to smack his head: kiddush cups! Of course. Didn't I sometimes go over to my friend Brian's house on a Friday night, and didn't his dad say a prayer and didn't we then drink out of a kiddush cup? And didn't Brian's sister tell me only the other day that their dad had converted to atheism now he's turned 90? Mind you, Brian became a Buddhist and for a while his sister was a Maoist.

There were quite a few times when my father smacked his head like that. Mostly, it came attached to the word meshugge, a way of telling the world in Yiddish that someone nearby (often me) was crazy. That's my bit of the story that this museum is trying to tell. I'm the result of a few families out of the 150,000 people who came to Britain from Russia, Romania and "Russian Poland" around 130 years ago. Beginning with the Norman invasion and ending recently, other kinds of Jews are on display, too - Spanish, Portuguese, Indian - as well as converts: in the entrance foyer, a Chinese woman talks alongside a Hasidic rabbi and Jonathan Freedland. Jewish multiculturalism, even.

My parents grew into something else: Jewish internationalism. I see it on a trade-union banner. Across the top it reads: "The London Jewish Bakers Union". Across the bottom: "Workers of the World Unite". In the middle: "Buy bread with the union label". On the reverse, not visible when I visited, it says the same in Yiddish. So, these bakers seemed to think that they could speak their own language, bake Jewish bread, have a Jewish trade union and yet also say: "Labour is international."

Not everyone agreed. Yes, of course not everyone agreed about workers losing their chains and all that. I mean not everyone agreed about Yiddish. From the explanation here, we see that the older Jewish community was none too happy that the children at the Jews' Free School talked to each other in Yiddish. But then the Jewish Board of Guardians had opposed the setting up of a night shelter to "house new arrivals from eastern Europe, believing it encouraged 'helpless foreigners' to come to England. They had the shelter closed on sanitary grounds." And the Rothschilds opposed the setting up of a hospital that would keep kosher and observe the festivals, and where Yiddish would be spoken. I sense that today's debate about multiculturalism has its roots right here.

The longer I stay, the more delights, surprises and sadnesses I find. Delights? A modernist doll's house built by Malcolm Libling, son of an East End furniture-maker, for his daughter Thelma, each room filled with modernist furniture; the sign for what my parents called "the shvitzer", literally "the sweater", but actually the Russian Vapour Baths.

Surprises? Protestant English-style samplers from the early 19th century, embroidered by Mary Hyams, based on Joseph Addison ("Time itself shall shortly cease the Sun look dim with age and nature sink in years but thy Soul shall still remain unhurt amidst the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds"); Jewish immigrants from Austria and Germany (but not Russia) during the First World War interned on the Isle of Man. Ah, a rehearsal for the next war.

Sadnesses? A film of three International Brigaders, including a friend of my parents, Sam Lesser, talking about losing the fight against Franco; small ads in the Jewish Chronicle sent by German and Austrian Jews pleading for someone to take them on: "Viennese married couple, educated, understanding English, seek posts as chauffeur-valet and maid or similar work. Apply to Stierer, Vienna 9, Glasergasse 22."

Nearby, there's Andrew Sachs, Klaus Moser, Judith Kerr and others talking about growing up German or Austrian but then escaping. At the end they talk of nationality. Each puts it differently, but none of them says unequivocally that he or she is British. Judith Kerr is not quite as British as someone who was born British; Klaus Moser is, he says, a Middle European Jew; and another says proudly that she is a Londoner. Definitely a Londoner. Of north-west London.

Complicated, this identity stuff. And so it should be.

The Jewish Museum is at 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1. Details:

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD