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Philadelphia's National Museum of American Jewish History



Unlike most other Jewish museums, Philadelphia's National Museum of American Jewish History really is about American Judaism, not biblical history, the Holocaust, or Israel. And this being a museum about an ethnic group in a country where people could forge new paths, one of the themes that touches me in the NMAJH's four floors of exhibitions is American Jewry's 350-year tug-o'-war between traditional practices (e.g. keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, marrying another Jew) and assimilating. It's a story that will ring true to almost any hyphenated American, whether Grandma came from China, Mexico, or Morocco.

Naturally, that tug-o'-war between a separate identity and mainstream American culture is not the only theme this museum explores. But much like the United States itself, NMAJH contains many narratives, and for this assimilationist boomer, it's that struggle between ethnicity and being “American” – between separateness and integration in the larger society – that hits home.

Just off the elevator on the fourth floor is a montage of boldface faces that summarizes this museum's curiosity about all the paths Jewish-Americans have taken. The montage includes both Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (left), Moschiach (Messiah) to many ultra-Orthodox Lubavitchers, and Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise (below, left), 19th-century leader of the then-radical Reformed Jewish movement. There's brainy Albert Einstein and brawny Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg (right); the hilariously anarchistic Groucho Marx and eager-to-please convert Sammy Davis Jr. Outspoken politico Bella Abzug (right) shares space with the private Irving Berlin. By the way, the normally cautious Berlin did tip his hand a little, insofar as he composed “White Christmas” and, like me, married a shiksa.

The First Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880,” on the fourth floor, begins with the United States' first Jewish settlers. Brazilian Jews who feared that the Portuguese might reimpose the Inquisition, they sailed to New Amsterdam, where the Dutch West India Company didn't permit them to own firearms, open shops, or worship publicly. An inauspicious start, but as the fine religious texts and implements (e.g. candlesticks) on display here prove, the DWIC practiced don't-ask-don't-tell, and that sure beat the Inquisition. Good, because these Jews had not come here so they could have “Chanukah bushes” at Christmastime.

By the 1700s it was much easier for Jews to fit in here than in Europe. For some, that meant building synagogues without fear of persecution; for others, it meant moving into mainstream society without being rejected. Jews served in the Revolutionary and Civil wars; (shown here, Civil War soldier Albert S. Nones). A letter on display that Mordecai Sheftall, an officer in the Revolutionary War, wrote to his wife, explains that he and another soldier have been captured by the British. That other soldier? Their 16-year-old son.

A few Jews, clad like Davy Crockett types, went west. In 1850 westward-bound Julius Brooks so wowed a young lady named Fanny that she begged him to take her with him, and he did. I couldn't take my eyes off a photo of Fanny – she was movie star beautiful -- and several shots of Jews like Brooks posing with Sitting Bull and other American Indians. FYI, Fanny and Julius ended up in Salt Lake City where, at least, there was a temple. Sort of.

These Jews Ate Shrimp

Reformed Judaism began in Charleston, where, in 1840, Jews took each other to court over the Reformists' wish to borrow the Christian idea of using an organ in a synagogue. But Cincinnati became the center of Reformed Judaism, which allowed men and women to sit together during services and offered prayers in English as well as Hebrew. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise founded the first seminary to train Reformed Jewish rabbis, and the museum displays documents from the 1883 graduation gala, known as the “treyfa banquet” because it was a defiant feast of treyf: oysters, shrimp, frog's legs, and other spectacularly unkosher foods.

The museum's third floor, “Dreams of Freedom, 1880-1945,” covers the years when immigrants came pouring into this country. It was a period when many eastern European Jews embraced the chance to fit in. Many donned American garb, taking jobs that obliged them to work on Saturdays (a no-no for observant Jews). Some became professional athletes (left, cigarette card picture of prizefighter Charlie Goldman in 1911), and others entertainers. Jewish entrepreneurs created a movie industry in Hollywood and made stars of Jewish comics like the Marx Brothers; in the museum's little theater, check out the video of Groucho, in the opening scene of Horse Feathers, singing, “Whatever It Is, I'm Against It.”

Edward G. Robinson's Secret

As other videos make clear, however, romantic leading men like heartthrob John Garfield and tough guys like Edward G. Robinson and George Raft had to change their names and hide their Jewish roots. A personal reminiscence in another multi-media display talks about how the 1915 lynching of Georgia resident Leo Frank reminded Jews that they still couldn't count on acceptance, not even in America, and not even if, as some were doing, they tried so hard to be "American" that they rolled eggs on their lawns for Easter.

[Click here for Part 2.]


Photos: Top, © Jeff Goldberg/Esto, courtesy of National Museum of American Jewish History. Also Civil War soldier and boxer card courtesy of National Museum of American Jewish History. 

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