Food holds great significance in Jewish culture, it brings together families, friends and strangers to connect and share over a meal. Jewish cuisine offers a link to tradition and Jewish recipes are constantly changing and adapting. Indeed, as the Jewish diaspora has spread throughout the world, the food produced has often reflected the culture it’s been a part of. But food is also universal. It says something about our cultural identity, where we come from and what makes us, us.
Manchester Jewish Museum has recently attempted to explore these ideas with families and adults through Summer Bake Off; a series of workshops that ran over the summer of 2021 where participants were invited to learn how to bake some classic Jewish treats and in the process, learn about Jewish history and culture.
Dara Laughlin, Manchester Jewish Museum’s Creative Producer for Children and Young People, organised and delivered these sessions; who better to help us find out more about this innovative approach to engagement and learning? Thanks to her insight, this article helps to demonstrate how through the unconventional use of baking in a museum setting, people can connect with culture, and as a result, each other.
Manchester Jewish Museum
Located in Cheetham Hill, Manchester’s historic Jewish quarter and one of the city’s most culturally diverse neighbourhoods, Manchester Jewish Museum is built around Manchester’s oldest Sephardi synagogue. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue was built in 1874 for Sephardi Jewish immigrants in the area; Jewish people who were originally expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, and settled around the Mediterranean, North Africa, Syria, and other near eastern countries in the years after. Up until this summer the museum was housed within this synagogue before the new and expanded museum opened in early July, following a £6 million development and extension. Complete with a brand new and expanded gallery space, the extension allows for the display of much more of the museum’s collection, documenting the rich social and cultural history of Manchester’s Jewish population.
Manchester Jewish Museum, including its ornate Spanish & Portuguese synagogue pictured right and the new development adjoining on the left, which houses the new gallery, café, shop, learning kitchen and collection store. (Image courtesy of Joel Chester Fildes)
The synagogue itself has been fully restored to its original decorative scheme following consultation with a team of historic architects, paint experts and stained glass window specialists. It also hosted a specially commissioned site-specific installation ‘The long waited, weighted, gathering’ by Turner-Prize winning artist Laure Prouvost as part of Manchester International Festival 2021. The Summer Bake Off sessions were an important part of this exciting chapter in the Manchester Jewish Museum’s history, taking place in the museum’s brand-new, purpose-built Learning Kitchen.
So how do you go about baking in a museum environment? Well, it wouldn’t be possible without Manchester Jewish Museum’s new state of the art Learning Kitchen. Now the name may ring a bell with a few of you reading this; Learning Studios are fairly commonplace in many museums, but a dedicated cooking and food preparation space is definitely more unusual! It’s here that participants can enjoy a hands-on experience as they delve into Jewish cuisine and history.
The Learning Kitchen (Image courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum)
Summer Bake Off
Despite sharing a similar name to the Channel 4 television phenomenon, the Summer Bake Off programme had its own structure and format; there were no Paul Hollywood handshakes or soggy bottoms here! Running every Wednesday throughout the school summer holidays, these sessions were open to all ages, though marketed with a focus on bringing in families to the museum. Participants could book onto one of two, hour long afternoon sessions. Upon arrival, they were warmly welcomed, given an introduction to the new museum, the collection, and to what they would be baking.
As each session only lasted an hour, the participants were encouraged to get straight into the baking. With Dara there to guide and facilitate, participants began to knead, roll, cut and decorate before placing their creations into the oven. Throughout this process, Dara talked a little more about the museum, the food that they were creating and its relevance to Manchester’s Jewish history. The dialogue was two way and it was actively encouraged that participants share their own stories of baking or any links they could make to their own culture or heritage, whether Jewish or not. After the bakes are put into the oven, Dara would encourage the participants to explore the museum and its galleries, as the small fee they paid for the session also includes annual admission to the museum.
Participants baking in the Learning Kitchen (Image courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum)
In one particular session, where the participants had just put their challah bread into the oven, Dara shared some photos from the archive of Jewish bakeries that used to exist in the local area. Although object-based learning isn’t a core or consistent element of the Summer Bake Off sessions, where relevant Dara can use the museum’s on-site collection to make connections between historic objects and the food that they’re baking. In doing so, she’s able to highlight how food has and still does play an integral part in shaping different cultures.
One of the photos used from the archive to highlight the relevance of the baking and to prompt discussion. The above photograph is the interior of Bernard Baker Bakehouse in Red Bank near Claffs synagogue. (Image courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum)
Cooking up something good
As the name of the sessions suggests, participants predominantly created baked goods but the type of food baked changed in order to keep the sessions interesting and varied. Dara explained:
“We baked something different every week. We wanted someone who had attended to be encouraged to come back next week to bake something different and learn something new, whether it be a different baking technique or the cultural significance of a particular Jewish holiday.”
So what exactly did they get to bake? Well, Dara started the first session off with the iconic Jewish staple of challah bread. Participants got to make their own loaf to take home as well as learn about the importance of challah bread in Jewish traditions and ceremonies such as Sabbath. Another week they baked little triangular-shaped pastries called hamantaschen. The beauty of hamantaschen is that a variety of sweet or savoury ingredients can be used as a filling, such as fruit, cheese or chocolate. This gave the participants some choice over the baking and allowed them to make it particular to their own tastes. Dara guided the participants through the process of making these pastries while highlighting their cultural relevance at Purim; a popular Jewish festival in February/March of each year. Other examples include babka cupcakes, rugelach and honey cakes, which are particularly popular during the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.
A perfectly baked challah bread, straight out of the ovens of the Learning Kitchen (Image courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum)
Having enjoyed baking and the taste of their creations, many participants wanted to continue their baking at home. In fact, many of the participants who weren’t experienced bakers were shocked that something they created could taste so good! Dara came up with the brilliant idea of making some recipe cards that participants could take home. These cards included the recipe of what they had created on the day. Simple and cost-effective, the recipe cards are a fantastic example of how post-session resources can be created without putting a strain on Learning budgets, while also enabling participants to take something away with them to continue their learning.
The recipe card for the challah bread. (Image courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum)
I can’t help but think of the wise adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” What I think is important here is the power to inspire people to participate in their own lifelong learning outside of the museum’s walls. Dara herself recalled how many participants emailed after the sessions asking for more recipes. With this in mind, whether it’s baking, painting, acting or some other creative activity, museums can offer environments in which to learn but also motivate people to incorporate lifelong learning and creativity into their own lives. What matters is that a person has gone from potentially having little experience in said activity, to deciding to instigate their own learning, in their own time, in their own spaces, with their own family and friends.
Risk assessments are an important (albeit often tedious!) part of ensuring that whatever learning session takes place in a museum, that session is made to be as safe as physically possible. This is incredibly important for the sessions in the Summer Bake Off programme due to the regulations around food hygiene and safety. Dara took care to manage participants behaviour and safety whilst in the Learning Kitchen, especially when working with the ovens. Of course, some of the process had to be operated by Dara or the museum’s volunteers. Dara explained:
“It was only myself and the volunteer who used the ovens but we did allow children to use certain utensils under the supervision of their parents or guardians. We also used butter knives instead of sharp knives or dough cutters for example, which are far less sharp than some of the other utensils.”
Of course, another substantial risk when working with food is allergies. When participants booked onto the sessions they were asked if they had any allergies and this was again confirmed before the session started on the day. Simply checking in a two-step fashion can prevent a potential allergy from slipping through the net. Thanks to the great care and attention to detail that Dara and her team paid to the participants, many of you will be glad to hear that no one was harmed in the making of the rugelach! There is something worth noting here though, there is a responsibility on all museum professionals but especially those that work in learning environments (and as a result with potentially hazardous materials or dangerous equipment), to always prioritise the health and safety of participants.
The other thing important for the museum to communicate with participants is the kosher provision. Although the baking ingredients are all kosher, the sessions themselves are unable to be Beth Din supervised (a process in which a rabbi blesses the preparation of the food) so the museum is careful to communicate this to respect and acknowledge the cultural needs of the communities it works with. This serves as an important reminder to always consider the different needs of participants. No two people are the same and what might be acceptable to one person, may not be to another.
Making connections to make things better
We’ve established that the Summer Bake Off sessions place importance on learning about Jewish social and cultural history through the use of baking traditional Jewish food. However, there’s another important aim to the sessions and that’s to facilitate conversation and an exchange of ideas. This is best exemplified in the museum’s mission: ‘Making connections to make things better’. Dara commented on how through food, we can connect with each other more readily:
“After doing lots of consultation work with different communities while the museum was closed, the one thing that came up was that people wanted to experience more Jewish food. When you think about it food is something that people already connect with and is a natural part of our daily lives that encourages us to share and connect. We’ve found that it’s one of the easiest ways to help facilitate those connections between different cultures. You can learn a lot about a person over a shared meal.”
This is particularly important considering the recent rise of political and cultural tensions across the world. The museum itself is situated in a culturally diverse area and the museum seeks to welcome all communities. Dara elaborated:
“…we’re based in Cheetham Hill, which is one of the most culturally diverse postcodes in Greater Manchester, home to lots of people who belong to different cultures and follow different religions and to people of first and second generation immigration. There can sometimes be tension between these different groups so I think, especially at the moment when we’ve got a rise in hate crimes, something really important that we as a museum can provide, is being that space to open up those difficult conversations and try to form connections.”
M8 Members scheme
Part of this work also includes making it clear that all are welcome to the museum. The museum has recently launched the M8 Members scheme, which allows anybody who lives within the M8 postcode to visit for free. That’s some 30,000 or so people who live within walking distance to the museum! These people are the most immediate community closest to the museum but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these people will inevitably visit. Dara recalled how two participants from one of the sessions told her that despite being from the local area, they initially thought that they might not be welcome at the museum:
“They came as a result of seeing the Summer Bake Off sessions advertised but didn’t initially think it was for people like them. In fact, they found the experience really welcoming and were really excited that they could see people who looked like themselves there. This is a really important thing that we’re really wanting to communicate, that the museum is a space relevant for everybody, whether you’re Jewish or not.”
It appears then, that the Summer Bake Off sessions actually have a strong social function and purpose. They’re an opportunity to invite local people into a space for mutual learning, where they can learn about their own culture, as well as their neighbour’s culture. In doing this, the museum can help support local communities in establishing and maintaining relationships with one another.
So what does the Summer Bake Off programme demonstrate? It shows us that you don’t necessarily need objects to facilitate learning in museum environments. Object-based learning is a powerful tool to employ in museums for sure, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. It shows us that while objects can be used, they’re not necessarily a prerequisite to prompt discussion, facilitate debate and challenge preconceptions. On the contrary, food can be used to provide a bridge between different cultures, to highlight common ground; showing that although we all have particular tastes and various ingredients we’ve grown up with, when it comes down to it we’re not all that different. Fundamentally, food reminds us that although we as humans may have our differences, we’re more similar than we think. The programme is therefore a poignant reminder of the potential social function of the museum of the twenty-first century; a space that can facilitate healing and improve relations among marginalised members of society. The Manchester Jewish Museum clearly isn’t just a museum for those of the Jewish faith, on the contrary, it’s a museum for everyone.
A massive thank you to Dara and the team at the Manchester Jewish Museum for their contribution to this article.
Unfortunately, as we’re now well into the autumn, the Summer Bake Off sessions have now ended. However, those of you keen to try your hand baking some Jewish treats will be pleased to know that the sessions are due to run again next summer in 2022. More information about these and other sessions can be found on Manchester Jewish Museum’s website but if you’d like to get in touch with Dara personally you can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A question for you…
Is this the first time you’ve seen baking or cooking used in a museum setting? If so, what type of food and culture would you like to explore? If not, what examples of this can you share?
Feel free to answer in the comment box below.