Visiting the Jewish American Museum

    August 2011          
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Review of the National Museum of Jewish America History

By Lauren Suval

Review of the National Museum of Jewish America History

Tourists come to the city of brotherly love eager to hear tales of the American Revolution, which resulted in newly-acquired freedoms for the American people. Well, it is only natural that the National Museum of Jewish American History, established this past November, is located in the heart of Philadelphia's historical district. The Jews who journeyed to the United States had pined for the American dream of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and a visit to the National Museum of Jewish American History can surely be constituted as a powerful must-see.

The question of freedom for Jews in the land of opportunity is immediately raised upon entry into the museum, where onlookers see an excerpt from a letter that Moses Sexias, one of the founders of the Newport Bank of Rhode Island, wrote to George Washington in 1790. "Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events, behold Government erected by the Majesty of the people- a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The museum consists of four floors that chronologically illustrate the rich historical and cultural underpinnings of Jewish American life, struggles and suffering included, through films, artifacts, replicas, and story boards. Visitors walk across pathways (that connect each floor), which are reminiscent of crossing a bridge or disembarking a ship; symbolic of transition. This mirrored the transition for the Jews into another era, signifying another wave of migration, and it's a transition for the visitor, who keeps traveling in time.

Interesting exhibits incorporate an appropriate blend of information and interaction. In one exhibit lies an authentic covered wagon, representing the pioneer life the Jews experienced when they moved westward in the mid 19th century. Replicas depict what the Jews traveled with, which included a diary and a prayer book, and add a genuine touch to the exhibit's ambiance. Recordings of crickets and outdoor sound additionally contribute to the rural feel.

Visitors can also partake in the period of mass Jewish migration with a very hands-on approach. Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island; this particular exhibit zones in on the lives and stories of four Jews in the midst of the immigration process upon their arrival in America. You can put yourself in their shoes, and subject yourself to the inspection endeavors via a multimedia display of intelligence tests and questions that a typical Jewish immigrant had to endure.

As the onlooker continues his/her stroll through this period of history, the world of the Lower East Side (where the first generation of Jewish immigrants resided) comes into view, with signs for Steinberg's Dairy Restaurant and Samuel's Delicatessen hanging from the ceiling above. The visitor also has the opportunity to be immersed in a traditional night school session, while sitting at an old fashioned wooden desk, or experience what a tenement home was like for the average Jewish immigrant. A rather heartbreaking exhibit focuses on the grueling labor and poor working conditions that epitomized life in the sweatshops. While these immigrants suffered, they still managed to make an honest living.

Now fast forward to the third generation of American Jews, and take a nostalgic look at what life was like in suburbia. A quaint living room features a couch facing a black and white television console, where Barbara Streisand is found singing one of her hits. Photographs of American Jewish families, who lived in the suburbs during the 60's, hang on the wall, capturing the essence of the era. Adjacent to the mock living room set is a cozy kitchen, where Maxwell House coffee, a jar of kosher pickles, and a box of coconut macaroons are all contained neatly in the cupboard above the stove.


An average visit to the National Museum of Jewish American History requires an ample amount of time to explore all the intricacies of the exhibits; however, it is a museum that a Jewish American would not want to miss during a hiatus in the city of brotherly love.


from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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