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A trip to Manchester? We’re virtually United on that

The Lowry Center at Manchester’s Salford Quays . . . named after the acclaimed artist. Photo by Andrew Dunn

We are no longer able to travel, but when we were younger, as an alternative to London, I would suggest to my wife that we visit Manchester.

"What would we do there?" she would ask. "Is there anything to see?"

"Well," I would respond, "it's a city of half a million people; there must be something."

Manchester has always had an attraction for me, although I knew precious little about it. I knew that it was a great city that had flourished as a textile manufacturing center during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. I also knew that it was located in the north of England, a region of "rolling hills and moors." And, finally, I knew that Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, had been a lecturer in chemistry at the university there.

And so I turned to my computer for further information, and on Wikipedia discovered many other interesting facts about Manchester. I learned that it was one end of the world's first intercity passenger railway – the Liverpool-Manchester Railway. I learned that a great canal – the Manchester Ship Canal – was built to enable ocean-going vessels to dock at its bustling port. I learned that Friedrich Engels, the father of Marxist theory, spent most of his life in and around Manchester, and that it was the subject of his important work, "The Condition of the Working Class in England." I read about the decline of this great city in the beginning of the 20th century, and its resurgence as a financial and cultural center toward the end of the century. I hadn't known that Manchester suffered greatly during World War II from frequent air attacks by the German Luftwaffe; I had not heard of the Christmas Blitz of 1940 that destroyed much of the inner city. And, finally, I learned of the horrific bombing in 1996 by the IRA that devastated midtown. 

Top tourist attraction . . . John Rylands Library. Phto by Esther Westerveld

It came as a surprise to me that, of all the important places in this great city, the number one tourist attraction, as currently ranked by TripAdvisor, is the John Rylands Library. A library? Number one? That will be our first virtual destination. We discovered that the library building is architecturally grand, built in the old Victorian style, but that's not what makes it unique. What's really important is that it houses the earliest known fragment of the New Testament, a cultural treasure of the first order. And, of course, there is more, much more – an original copy of the Magna Carta; a Gutenberg Bible; exquisite medieval illuminated manuscripts; and a first edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the first book printed in England. The library even has a Jewish connection. In 1961, the Wolfson Foundation donated the cost of an extension to the library called the Lady (Edith) Wolfson Building. 

Manchester’s Jewish Museum . . . it has innovations. Photo by Richerman

 We continue our virtual tour to the Gorton Monastery and the Manchester Jewish Museum. As unlikely as it seems, they have much in common. The monastery was built in the 1860s by Franciscan monks who wanted to serve the local Catholic community. The building that is now the museum was completed in 1874 and was originally the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Both buildings were vacated about a century later due to changing demographics and economic difficulties. From disuse they fell into disrepair. But caring citizens who saw the magnificence of the structures and knew their histories undertook a decade-long project of restoration.

Today, the monastery has been restored to its former glory, although it no longer serves as a church. The synagogue, too, has been fully restored, stained glass windows and all, but also no longer functions as a house of worship and has become the Jewish Museum. I am especially taken with the museum's innovations. The former women's gallery on the second floor holds a permanent exhibit of the history of the Manchester Jewish community over the past 200 years. The building's extension, originally intended to be a sukkah, is now the main exhibition hall. On the main floor, the synagogue interior has been fully restored, and enables visitors unfamiliar with Judaism to learn about Jewish religious life. The museum enjoys a wonderful reputation for reaching out to the general population, and encourages visits by church groups, schools and the like. The museum is one of only two Jewish museums in the entire country, and serves as a goodwill ambassador of the Jewish community. As a curiosity, both the monastery and the museum advertise themselves as desirable wedding venues. I can understand the museum, but the monastery….

The final stop on our virtual tour is the Lowry, an art gallery and theater complex named for L.S. Lowry (1887-1976), the acclaimed artist who painted scenes of life in the industrial districts of northwest England in the early and mid-20th century. Lowry painted in the naive style, so that one might expect a certain cheerfulness in his paintings But the opposite is true. As one art critic wrote, "I stood in the gallery marveling at the accuracy of the mirror that this painter has held up to the bleakness … the shabbiness … the fogboundness of northern industrial England." Among Lowry's paintings are "A Northern Town," "Coming out of School," "Coming from the Mill," "The Football Match," "The Old House," and "Tree in a Square." The names of these paintings suggest both the themes and the mood of the artist. The gallery includes about 400 of his works on permanent exhibition. A visit to this gallery is a visit to a bygone Manchester's heart and soul. I would have loved to take a painting home, but Lowry's paintings sell for millions of dollars.

What would a trip be without a hotel, even if only online? Our hotel for the night is the Midland, and why not? We can afford it -- in our dreams. As its name implies, it is a grand city center hotel, more than 100 years old. It has history, character, tradition, and class. And, best of all, it's within walking distance of the Manchester Reform synagogue. When abroad, we would always go to shul on Shabbat morning. In addition to the good feeling of doing a meritorious deed, we also got to experience the local Jewish community. Rabbi Robert Silverman has been the rabbi of the congregation for 30 years. He was recently interviewed on the BBC, where he reminisced about his time with the congregation. He recounted what happened when he was being interviewed by the board of trustees for the position many years ago.

"By the way, Rabbi, who is your favorite football team?" one trustee asked. "United," the rabbi answered. The trustees were happy – Manchester United is, of course, the city's fabled football team. But that night, the rabbi told his wife that what he had neglected to say was "Leeds United." In the parlance of Manchester, the rabbi had pulled the wool over the trustees' eyes.

After our visit to Manchester, we are finally home. What a trip. No long lines at the airport. Plenty of legroom. Delicious food from our own kitchen. What could be better? The only thing missing is a souvenir from our trip. Wait a minute. I look at my computer screen, and up pops: "Order online: Souvenirs from Manchester." A perfect trip.



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Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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