These festivities at the heart of London serve as an apt symbol of the strength and vitality of London's Jewish community. And despite what's heard in the news these days over Israel and potential boycotts and politics, these are exciting times for London's Jews. The city's Jewish Museum (www.jewishmuseum.org.uk) is celebrating its 75th anniversary by undertaking a major project to integrate its collections, displays and activities from two branches into a single, expanded Camden Town building.
Both branches of the museum are closed for now, but when the museum reopens in spring 2009, it will be three times as large as before. All of this new space will be used to house a multitude of interactive exhibits, temporary exhibition galleries, a large gift shop, an auditorium, a cafe and even a medieval mikvah uncovered during London excavations.
If you can't learn about the Jewish past at the museum right now, at least you can experience contemporary Jewish life with a visit to the London Jewish Cultural Centre (94-96 North End Road), an independent and inclusive organization in North London's Golders Green neighborhood.
Housed in a restored building known as Ivy House — once home to famed Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova — the London Jewish Cultural Centre offers a wide range of educational attractions. Most visitors to London probably will not have time to enroll in its extensive roster of classes — everything from modern Jewish history to Hebrew-language lessons. But travelers are welcome to stop by for a fitness class (yoga, pilates, etc.) or nosh in the kosher Ivy House Café (9:30 am. to 2:30 p.m., during much of the year; kashrut observance supervised by the Sephardi Beth Din).
The London Jewish Cultural Centre also hosts a packed calendar of events throughout the year, including discussions, screenings, lectures, concerts and more. Visit the Web site (www.ljcc.org. uk) to browse a full list of upcoming events, many of which are quite reasonably priced.
Nowadays, the North West London neighborhoods surrounding the center are the focal point of the 150,000-strong London Jewish community, but in the early part of the 20th century, it was the East End that was home to the Jews. That part of the city was heavily damaged during the German bombing campaigns of World War II, leading to a Jewish exodus afterward.
Today, Bangladeshi immigrants populate the East End neighborhoods of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, but informed visitors can peel back the layers of history to catch glimpses of the area's Jewish past. The Jewish Museum, the Jewish East End Celebration Society (www. jeecs.org.uk) and London Walks (www. walks.com) all organize Jewish-themed walking tours of the area. Some of them include entrance to Bevis Marks Synagogue, a Sephardic temple built in 1702 that holds the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in the British Isles.
Seeing and Saving
Meanwhile, London's New West End Synagogue, at St Petersburg Place (www. newwestend.org.uk) just received a Grade-1 English Heritage listing, placing it among the top 3 percent of England's historic buildings.
The beautiful structure, built in a Greco-Byzantine style, opened in 1879 when Jewish Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stood at the helm of a British Empire at the peak of its power. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel, was once a member of the congregation.
London's municipal government produces a semi-annual guide to Jewish culture. You can find the "Jewish London Guide for Autumn and Winter 2007/08" online at: www.london.gov.uk/mayor/culture/jewish_london/index.jsp.
Now, for some more particulars …
Looking to start your London trip in style? An overnight flight on Silverjet (www.flysilverjet.com) — a new, all-business class airline flying between Newark and London — will let you get a good night's sleep on lie-flat beds so you can enjoy your first day in England. Silverjet's private lounges and in-flight service are both excellent, and prices tend to be lower than business fares on traditional airlines.
If you splurge on airfare, consider saving a bit of money by booking a room in East London at the brand-new Radisson Edwardian New Providence Wharf hotel (www.radissonedwardian.com/londonuk_canarywharf).
Just opened in September, this sleek, modern hotel has a lovely spa and spacious guest rooms outfitted with blond bamboo floors, triple-glazed windows and Bang & Olufsen flat-panel televisions. The New Providence Wharf hotel is a five-minute cab ride from the Canary Wharf shopping and restaurant center, where you can catch the Underground for a quick ride into central London.
Across the Thames River from New Providence Wharf lies the charming Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is filled with numerous worthwhile attractions. Visit the Royal Observatory, where the Prime Meridian officially divides the planet into Eastern and Western halves. You can even straddle the line and simultaneously have feet in two hemispheres!
Other Greenwich attractions include the elaborate interiors of the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum, which chronicles Britain's mastery of the waves.
For more information, visit: www. visitlondon.com.