Where Jewish and American History Collide

A tour of the National Museum of American Jewish History, which exactly one year ago settled alongside the site of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)

Click photo to download. Caption: The National Museum of American Jewish History’s building for the past year. Facing Independence Mall in Philadelphia is a glass prism, expressing "the openness of America as well as the perennial fragility of democracy," according to the museum. Credit: Barry Halkin/Halkin Photography.

PHILADELPHIA—“We moved from the 50-yard line to the owner’s box,” says Jay Nachman, the public relations director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, quoting the late museum board member George Ross as we look out on the spectacular view of Philadelphia from the balcony of the facility.

The Jewish museum has been open to the public at its current location—overlooking Independence Mall, home of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence—since November 26, 2010, nearly a full year now. The museum was previously at the Fourth Street location of Congregation Mikveh Israel (a congregation first opened in 1740 to serve Spanish-Portuguese Jews), with a 15,000-square foot exhibit space open since July 4, 1976. 

Its current home is more grandiose—a 100,000-square foot, $150 million building designed by architect James Stewart Polshek, whose other work includes the “Newseum” in Washington, DC, an expansion of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark. The exhibitions were designedby Gallagher & Associates, and the museum’s deputy director Josh Perelman aided in curating.

On the way to the museum, I pass many Jewish landmarks, including the Jewish Federation building (which contains the Jewish Publication Society, the oldest Jewish publication house in the country), the Beth Zion-Beth Israel Synagogue on 18th street, and the YM/YWHA on 15th and Pine. Jews have clearly had a presence in Philadelphia since the early days of the city.

Nachman said that because the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written here, there is no better place to tell the story of how Jews participated in—and were changed by—the freedoms granted with the founding of America. Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, the chief historian at the museum and a leading scholar of American Jewry, agreed in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service.

“It is after all an amazing thing that you have such a museum on the [Independence] Mall in Philadelphia overlooking the Liberty Bell, and a stone’s throw away from the Constitution center,” Sarna said.

Beth Wenger, Professor of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, was amember of the museum’s advisory panel, which met for 11 years.

“We hope that visitors leave with a sense that freedom has brought creativity, innovation, and opportunity for Jews, but that it has also entailed responsibilities and choices … and it sheds light on broader themes in American history,” she wrote in an email to JointMedia News Service.

Sarna said many of his college students assume that American Jewish history began after World War II, believing that America’s Jewish community also began to flourish when Israel became a nation. The museum, with its layout in stages, does a nice job of countering that misconception. Visitors can go through each of three chronologically arranged floors to see artifacts and hear stories from different eras:

    •    4th floor—Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880

    •    3rd floor—Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945

    •    2nd floor —Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945-Today.

Sarna said this design and layout showcases “the simple fact that Jews have been part of this nation’s history since 1654,” so that Jews are not “interlopers” but “integral to the history of America.”

One of the museum’s strengths is the breadth of its holdings. It is fascinating to see a letter from Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam (present day New York) from 1647-1665, saying that he does not want Jews in his colony. The list of the original passengers on the ship from Recife, Brazil, to New Amsterdam in 1654 is also on display. As Sarna pointed out, there is a trove of objects that were never seen before because there had not been a place to house them.

Visitors can see the implements of everyday life used by Jews of this era: a letter from George Washington to the Jews of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue (America’s first congregation) with the famous line that “we will give bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance”; portraits of Jews at that time; circumcision kits; and a 1737 Torah scroll written in Morocco and sent by a British Jew as a gift to the Jews of Savannah, Georgia.

Certain items showcase the ways Jews were integrated into the new republic from its inception.  A document from July 4, 1788 describes how Jacob Cohen, the leader of Philadephia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue, marched in a celebratory parade with leaders of Christian churches, and that there was a kosher table allowing Jews to participate in the subsequent celebratory banquet following.

Yet, Jews also faced difficulties—the Jews of Savannah fled en massein 1740 because of fears of a Spanish invasion and the inquisition that could come in its wake, and Isaac Touro fled to Jamaica during the Revolutionary War as a loyalist to the British crown. Aaron Lopez was denied citizenship in Rhode Island, and only granted it in neighboring Massachusetts in 1762.

A 1789 acrostic prayer written in Richmond, Va., praises George Washington by spelling out his name in Hebrew letters. An 1840 document from Charleston, SC, decides that a civil court has no role in the religious disputes between the Orthodox and those agitating for religious reform—those who eventually became part of the Reform movement.

On more contemporary times, there is a video about the Leo Frank case, with narration by playwright Alfred Uhry (author of dramas Driving Miss Daisy and Parade). Frank is the only Jew ever lynched in America, in 1915 in Georgia. Uhry’s great-uncle owned the pencil factory where the murder that Frank was wrongly accused of took place.

The role of American Jews during the Holocaust is represented by a display of the 1942 telegrams telling New York rabbi Stephen Wise of the existence of the Final Solution, and photos of the 1943 march of ultra-Orthodox rabbis on Washington days before Yom Kippur to demand more action from the U.S. government.

Virgilia Rownsley, a Philadelphia resident visiting the museum, told JointMedia News Service she hadn’t realized that Jews had “such an impact” in America, namely the contributions of early feminist leaders Betty Friedan (author of the 1963 book The Feminine Mystique) and Bella Abzug, a New York politician.

Eleven-year-old Yael Perlman, already a veteran museumgoer, emphasized the breadth of the Philadelphia museum’s offerings, saying the experience is “not like visiting Ellis Island or the Tenement Museum [in New York], where you learn about something specific.”

Instead, the variety of artifacts on display—and the commanding architecture of the building itself—have created a place that encourages both Jews and non-Jews to think about the American experience, through the unique lens of the Jewish experience on these shores.

Beth Kissileff lives in Pittsburgh and has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College and for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in three states. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013) and is at work on a novel and a scholarly book of essays on the Bible.

Posted on November 21, 2011 and filed under Arts, U.S..