April 12, 2011
The new National Museum of American Jewish History traces the immigrant ethnic experience.
PHILADELPHIA - George Washington never had it this good.
From five stories up, it’s pretty easy to see what he couldn’t, with the expanse of Independence Mall splayed out below. Washington’s newly recreated house is straight ahead, right next to the Liberty Bell Pavilion. One block to the left is Independence Hall and, to the right, the National Constitution Center.
But the top floor of the brand-new National Museum of American Jewish History — which opened late last year here in the dead center of the country’s single most historic square mile — is the only place that gives you a full panorama of the intricate, carefully planned landscape of the Mall.
From the balcony, the history is almost too much to take in. On surrounding cobblestone streets, top-hatted tour guides cart tourists around in horse-drawn carriages.
But for all the history outside, the stories inside are even richer. The museum’s history of the Jewish experience in America is a microcosm of both the whole history of the Jewish people and of the quintessentially American experience of the last couple hundred years.
Erev Passover is a particularly appropriate time to walk through the museum’s earliest artifacts, which date to the first Jews’ arrival in North America almost 350 years ago. Themes of freedom and liberation course through the exhibits, where stories and memorabilia from the Jewish immigrant experience are writ large in videos, displays and impressive interactive exhibits.
“This museum is a story of one immigrant ethnic group’s encounter with freedom,” said Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the museum. “At the beginning, notwithstanding the tremendous aspirations that drove people here, the freedoms were far from perfect.”
In some cases — fleeing Spain and Portugal in the 17th century, or Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the plight of the Jews on the run very closely mirrors the exodus from Egypt. Here, they had passports — the museum displays a few from early 20th century Russia — but once they arrived, their lives were often a complicated mix of Jewishness and Americanness, with the two not always compatible.
The museum does a skillful job of showing how these twin identities slowly bumped up against one another, with too many artifacts to count: a copy of Maryland’s 1819 “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jews to hold elected office; a pair of Levi’s jeans from 1885, which look shockingly similar to modern-day jeans (although Mr. Strauss probably didn’t think skinny jeans or low-riders would ever be in fashion); and English-Hebrew typewriters used to produce the myriad Jewish newspapers in New York and elsewhere. The exhibits tell of the slow, careful journey that Jews took in America, from searching for their own freedom to using their eventually perfected freedom to lift up others.
“It’s tough enough, when you look at broad strokes of those years of the American Jewish journey, simply to pursue and try to perfect and achieve those freedoms for one’s self,” Rosenzweig said. “By the time we get to the 20th century and certainly the 21st century, we have achieved those freedoms for ourselves and so it’s a natural thing, I think, given the ethos of our tradition, to begin to look very seriously at efforts to help others.”
After World War II, the American Jewish experience changed, so the museum’s tenor changes as well.
Jews became more engaged in the social and political life of the country, taking on leading roles everywhere from the entertainment industry (movie clips from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman put a fine point on just how funny we are) to politics. They vacationed in the Catskills and moved to the suburbs (one-third of all American Jews left cities for picket-fenced pastures from 1945 to 1965). And they went to camp.
The museum includes a whole room on Jewish summer camps, complete with “artifacts” (songbooks, packed trunks, the sew-in name tags of one Carol Levenson), field recordings (you hear the “ohmygodhowwasyourwinter” shrieks of the first day of camp piped in through speakers), and opportunities for interaction (visitors to both the museum and the Web site, nmajh.org, can upload embarrassing camp photos and postcards for all to see). One time I visited, other patrons walked through the room singing Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”
This focus on a crucial piece of the American Jewish experience — one that’s on the one hand extremely American, but at the same time a rare opportunity for American Jews to immerse themselves in such a Jewish atmosphere — articulates the different kind of freedom Jews have found just in the last 65 years. Not only do we have the freedom to be Jewish, and to practice Judaism as we please, but for the first time, we have the freedom not to be Jewish.
“Because we enjoy these intoxicating degrees of freedom, we can assimilate. We can be completely American and, if we wish, not at all Jewish,” Rosenzweig said. “The choice, the challenge, is living in that tension.”