As I climbed the stairs at the Fifth Street subway station, brilliant sunlight and blue skies greeted me. Turning left, I stepped onto new gray paving and paused to look up at the handsome building facing Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. Jews had arrived here, where Revolutionary America took shape, to claim their public presence. I rounded the corner to enter the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH). Facing me stood an African American guard and a Jewish cashier. I purchased my ticket from the cashier, who explained that it was a souvenir of my visit. Then I turned to the guard, who indicated the security apparatus. No doubt about it: NMAJH was a Jewish museum; no way I could mistake it for MoMA where one walks in unscanned.
Exiting the elevator on the fourth floor where the exhibit begins I read statements on freedom articulating the museum’s theme. “Behold a government, erected by the Majesty of the People,” Moses Seixas, the warden of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to George Washington in 1790 when he became president, “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance . . . .” The language reverberates as an American ideal. A less well-known quote from Abraham Cahan, the formidable editor of the Yiddish daily Forverts, speaks of freedom as a shared hope, the opportunity to live in freedom as an animating dream. Images accompany the words: photographs of American Jews, starting with Hank Greenberg and ending with Ethel Rosenberg. I nodded with recognition until I came to Helga Weise. Helga Weise? Fifteen years ago Paula Hyman and I edited a historical encyclopedia of . Helga Weise? I shrugged.
Freedom’s theme now received visual and historical articulation: Jews are wanderers; expelled from Vienna in the seventeenth century, they arrive in New York harbor and gaze on the Statue of Liberty in the nineteenth century. Freedom allows Jews to invent and reinvent themselves: Camden Jews salute the Israeli flag in 1948. Freedom inspires struggles for rights and political protest: Bella Abzug leads a Women’s Strike for Peace march in 1961; cloakmakers go on strike in 1916. The images are dizzying and eclectic. I retreated to walk across the bridge to the exhibit proper, covering 1654–1880. This standard chronology posits the violence that accelerated Jewish emigration from the Russian empire as a key turning point.
Much that follows is familiar: Peter Stuyvesant gives Jews permission to trade and live in New Amsterdam even as he tries to exclude them; a map shows migration and trade routes as well as the growth of settlements (including, in a nice transnational touch, Montreal and Jamaica); family trees carry several of the early arrivals down to the twentieth century ending with some recognizable names (Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo and New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger). Then, portraits of colonial Jews, the first original objects. The text panel points out that nothing in the paintings references the Jewish identity of these men and women. The number of objects increases now, many lent by the American Jewish Historical Society. And we hear the first of many actors speaking historical texts, in this case, a woman reading from Abigail Franks’s letters in a high British accent.
The museum offers some gems: Anna Gratz’s coffee service and Poor Will’s pocket almanac with annotations by Michael Gratz indicating Hebrew dates. The elegant Hebrew script exemplifies the dual nature of Jewish life in early America as does Joseph Simon’s miniature Torah scroll that he carried to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when it was a trading outpost. Colonial Jews may have been acculturated merchants who often intermarried but they were neither ignorant of Jewish learning nor willing to forsake Jewish religious traditions.
The Revolution is presented in a red room, with booming battle sounds, a woman narrating the relevant history, and what will become another museum theme—that Jews fought on both sides of battles that divided Americans. Financier Haym Solomon is given his own panel but the straightforward text acknowledges that his relatives embellished his career, reflecting the latest perspective in historical scholarship. Similarly, a panel on the celebration of the revolution in Philadelphia describes the triumphant march in which Jews participated as equals and the option of a kosher table at which they could feast at the end of the parade. The new United States of America would offer Jews both solidarity and separation.
Not until the nineteenth century do Jews begin to be treated as a group. The fight for
Jews’ rights to hold office in Maryland elicits a from a visitor, “I don’t like Maryland anymore. You had to be a Christian to hold office.” A large map with flashing lights and spoken narrative occupies the center of a room ringed with panels on different cities: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Houston. Women receive equal attention. Rebecca Gratz’s signal achievements occupy a large case, along with her fancy silver shoe buckles made by the famous Jewish silversmith, Myer Myers. The Charleston panel includes Isaac Harby’s English/Hebrew manuscript book of the first reformed liturgy but it is too high to read. At least I can enjoy the imaginative trade cards advertising Jewish stores.
An elaborate unkosher menu of a B’nai B’rith Banquet at the West End Hotel in New Orleans in 1886 upstages the notorious Trefa banquet. Dance cards, fancy dresses, and Purim balls introduce charitable activities. Then comes the anti-Semitic incident of exclusion from a hotel in Saratoga, New York.
I headed downstairs to dreams of freedom. White plaster curved sheets symbolizing immigrants’ correspondence form a backdrop for mostly anonymous images, words, and voices. “I’m a revolutionary,” announces an accented woman’s speech. I cross the bridge to view the years 1880–1945. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph of The Steerage confronts me. Every photography scholar knows that Stieglitz took this 1907 picture on a ship bound for Europe. The non-Jewish women and men in steerage were heading home. Yet American Jews can’t resist transforming the photo into an icon of arrival, symbolizing Jews who immigrated to the United States and not the fraction who returned. If you don’t look carefully, you can even imagine that the woman standing in steerage wearing a white shawl with a black stripe over her head is a man wearing a tallit. I was annoyed. None of the eminent scholars who guided the exhibit would have deliberately misused a document. But a photo, even a famous one, is just a picture . . . .
My annoyance gradually dissipated as I pass stacks of suitcases, a map of waves of migration (which includes Canada but not Mexico), ads for ship companies, debates on quotas, an interactive display. Then I saw a panel debunking the myth of name changes at Ellis Island. Immigrants Americanized their own names, the text explains, sometimes helped by public school teachers. A container holds laminated single sheets from Hebrew and Yiddish papers, with an English translation on the back. Nice. As the daughter and granddaughter of printers I admired the linotype keyboard machine. Very nice. The objects start to pile up—candlesticks, menorah, tallit katan from 1888 with lovely embroidery, yahrzeit calendar, a ketubah with a photograph of the bride and groom. There are seltzer bottles (later there is bottling machine for seltzer), a samovar, noodle cutter, Breakstone’s box for cheese, and the 1923 Jewish Cook Book (in much better shape than the one I inherited). The theme of “Becoming American” touches on settlement houses, Jewish education, the Jewish underworld, and the garment industry.
Rapidly the exhibit continues into World War I, “Freedom Challenged.” War posters, soldiers’ uniforms, and Alfred Uhry talking about the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, along with the Palmer Raids that rounded up radicals after the war convey effectively a dark spirit in the United States. This leads, unsurprisingly, to “Closing America’s Doors.” Then the exhibit considers the interwar years under the rubric, “Competing Visions.” Eddie Cantor sings, “If You Knew Susie,” one of my favorite girlhood songs. I’m in a good mood until the Hollywood Moguls appear on screen. There unfurls the standard litany of tough, ambitious men who struggled to make it in America. “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” intones the text, explaining that film industries on the economic margins allowed Jews, prevented from entering other fields, a chance to succeed in a new industry. A parade of name changes undercuts the earlier panel. I’m still angry at the language. Am I the only person who hears “moguls” and thinks oriental potentates? Hardly a friendly or accurate way to describe businessmen, entrepreneurs, and motion picture executives. I’m disappointed to see NMAJH use a historically pejorative term.
I left entertainment for “Jewish Identities, American Culture.” Here, Yiddish song and Tin Pan Alley compete for our attention. Henry Roth, Mike Gold, and Superman duke it out in a section on literature. I was pleased to discover modern dance and wish that photography had been recognized. The Art Students League and Ben Shahn’s mural, a sculpture by Chaim Gross and a small painting Moses Soyer offer a taste of New York Jewish culture. Next is “Jews Face the Great Depression,” plus Communism and Socialism. Materials from Jewish summer camps convey how Jews attempted to inculcate values in their children. Religious materials abound. A fantastic architectural model of the Brooklyn Jewish Center showing the pool in the basement, elegant social hall above it, and large synagogue on the second floor demonstrates beautifully the multiple components of synagogue center.
Turning the corner, I confront two screens up high, one with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the other with Hitler. The juxtaposition effectively demonstrates parallel events unfolding in the 1930s. FDR reminds us that all we have to fear is fear itself. “Jackass,” spit a young man behind me. “Should have bombed the shit out of Germany and be done with it.” In the next room Jewish GIs tell stories about Dachau and fighting. “Prayer is not enough,” Lester Strikoff explains. “You got to go out there and do things.” At the Battle of the Bulge, he was the point man. The two men and one woman, Dorothy Nash, hold their audience riveted.
The final floor covers the rest of the twentieth century. Its themes, “Expanding Freedom,” include civil rights and the Rosenbergs’ Cold War, Israel and suburbanization, Feminism and Soviet Jewry. A rapidly changing screen asks questions: What would you have done? What were their dreams? What were their fears? New faces appear on the bridge to the exhibit. I recognize American studies scholar Alan Trachtenberg and feminist theologian Judith Plaskow. I also recognized the title of one of my books as a heading of a section, “To the Golden Cities,” and smiled. On a 1950s television set in a suburban Jewish house, I glimpsed Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, and Dinah Shore and Barbra Streisand on the Jack Paar show in 1961.
Suburbanization means new synagogues. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elkins Park synagogue takes center stage. The widespread popularity of Bar and Bat Mitzvah register in invitations, cake toppers, an October 1952 issue of Life featuring “Life Goes to a Bar Mitzvah.” I admired Margo Bloom’s Bat Mitzvah dress and remembered my own.
Video clips present diverse intellectual and political figures. Sequences pair songs, such as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Want to Work on Maggie’s Farm No More” with Allen Ginsberg saying “Ohm,” or Carole King’s music with Betty Friedan and women’s liberation, or Simon and Garfunkel with the civil rights march in Birmingham. The pairs work. Then diverse panels picture women’s activism, Israel advocacy and the Six Day War, the Soviet Jewry struggle. Popular culture returns with “Exodus,” “Bagels and Bongos,” an American Jewish Girl Doll, and a Reagan button in Yiddish (but not one for Nixon).
The final room asks questions—Are Jews white? And invites answers—most say no. I didn’t linger; I needed to catch a train.
NMAJH represents an impressive achievement. It takes an unwieldy theme of freedom and works creatively to portray tensions as it moves through time. The exhibit draws on recent historical scholarship even as it hesitates to break new ground. It privileges popular culture and social history over that of elites and situates American Jews as part of the fabric of American society. The tone is mostly celebratory, not a portrait of declension. Yet the exhibit confronts difficult issues, such as the Cold War and trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The museum implicitly engages the other buildings around the mall, inserting American Jews into an historical dialogue better than any single book. Would I go back? Yes, if my grandson accompanied me.