As $150 million American Jewish History museum in Philadelphia nears opening, a look at the double-edged story it’s telling.
Philadelphia — He was a prominent city official in Richmond two centuries ago, but he is a minor figure in American history. Solomon Jacobs, in a portrait that well displays his serious mien and full sideburns, makes a silent statement here about the lives that American Jews once led and still do.
The 1811 oil painting of Jacobs, who served as city recorder and acting mayor of Virginia’s capital in the second decade of the 1800s, is mounted on a fourth-floor wall of the National Museum of American Jewish History, a glass-façade edifice that has risen over the last few years at the corner of Fifth and Market streets, across from the Independence Mall.
The institution, arguably the most prominent Jewish museum to open in the United States since the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Washington’s National Mall in 1993 and the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan in 1997, will hold its official unveiling the weekend of Nov. 12-14. The opening ceremonies will feature a keynote speech by Vice President Joseph Biden, performances by Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler, a symposium and VIP tours of the 100,000-square-foot site. The museum will open to the general public two weeks later.
On the walls and inside display cases of the five-story building — which is a block south of the National Constitution Center and a block north of Independence Hall, an area the museum calls “the nation’s most historic square mile” — are more than 1,000 artifacts, from the mundane to the exceptional. Among them: hand-written letters and yellowing receipts, photographs and books, posters and patches, greeting cards and boxing trunks, suitcases and a stagecoach, a Yiddish-language typewriter and Irving Berlin’s piano.
And Solomon Jacobs’ portrait, by Thomas Sully, a painter who drew, from live sittings, such major world figures as Queen Victoria and Thomas Jefferson.
A three-times grand master of the Grand Lodge of Masonry in Virginia, Jacobs was far from the most important member of the American Jewish community, which traces its roots to a group of 23 Jews from Recife, Brazil, who landed at New Amsterdam in 1654.
Though Richmond was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in this country in the early 19th century, and Jews played an important role in civic life there, Jacobs is not even the most important Jewish figure represented in the museum.
And that is why he is represented in the museum, its leaders say.
American Jewish history, the museum’s exhibits proclaim, is more than Henry Kissinger or Hyman Rickover, Sandy Koufax or Jonas Salk. People like that are certainly part of the museum. So are the likes of Solomon Jacobs — Jews who quietly built the country and are largely forgotten now.
Jacobs, the son of a roving, horseback-riding mohel, typifies the American Jewish narrative that in many respects has remained unchanged for 200 years. He was active in Richmond’s Jewish and wider communities, but his descendants intermarried and assimilated. There are no known Jewish members of his family today, says the Judaica collector who loaned the museum the Jacobs portrait.
And that is the price of freedom.
Freedom — freedom to openly identify oneself as a Jew, to practice one’s religion, to deny one’s Judaism or to run away from it — is the connecting theme of the museum’s permanent exhibition.
Freedom, says Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee, “is a double-edged sword; it’s unequivocally a blessing,” he said, one that has afforded American Jewry unprecedented opportunities. But it also may be a trap, one that allows a Jew to shed his Jewishness. “The choice is up to us,” Bayme says.
In a non-preachy, non judgmental, easy-to-miss manner, the museum presents the choices and the consequences of freedom, never obliquely stating that an individual or his family had opted out of Jewish life, never condemning one’s choices, but depicting, between the lines of text, a national Jewish life weakened by generations of assimilation and indifference if not outright conversion.
On the other hand, the museum tells the stories of Jews who have returned to the Jewish fold.
Also, because of America’s freedom, “both narratives exist at the same time,” Bayme says.
The framers of the museum’s collection chose a middle path, alluding to some Jews’ assimilationist tendencies while not being outright condemnatory, says Jonathan Sarna, the Brandeis University historian who headed a group of experts who checked the artifacts’ authenticity and relevance. Condemnation would unnecessarily alienate some visitors, he says.
“It’s not a synagogue. It’s not an Orthodox institution,” which might make a clearer statement about the imperative of Jewish continuity, Sarna says. “It’s not the museum’s job to take a stand.”
Text displayed near the end of the exhibition offers a tacit, cautionary note, he points out. “Freedom creates opportunities, imposes responsibilities, and poses challenges,” it reads. “Living in freedom is far from easy; uncertainties abound. Freedom has allowed Jews to select what they wished from their past and transform it for the future.”
The exhibits, in their totality, Sarna says, “subtly … tell people that freedom is a blessing — with freedom comes great danger, with with freedom comes responsibility.”
The assimilation of Solomon Jacobs’ family is a typical Jewish American story. “It is certainly a story that everybody knows,” Sarna says.
The Jews of Jacobs’ day “dealt with the same issues” as contemporary American Jews, says Arnie Kaplan, the Allentown, Pa., Judaica collector who loaned the Jacobs portrait and several dozen other items from his private collection to the museum. “They struggled with the same things” as Jews in 2010.
That’s a lesson for any minority group in this country. “The American Jewish story is the American story,” says Jay Nachman, the museum’s public relations director. “You see the American experience through the lens of the American Jewish community.”
“There is no other museum like this, telling the story that the museum tells — the sweep of Jewish history,” says Michael Rosenzweig, the museum’s president. “It’s an important story … a powerful testament to what all free people can accomplish.
“Since many other immigrant ethnic groups that came to this country faced similar challenges to those confronted by Jews, the museum will be a place for all Americans to explore,” Rosenzweig says.
With 30 original videos (by documentarian David Grubin) and hands-on, interactive exhibits for children (many are at kid’s eye-level), a thorough stroll through the museum will require at least two hours.
The museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, is the result of a $150 million fundraising campaign, much of which was run during the last two years of national recession. “A period of challenge,” says Rosenzweig, who adds, “It was hard to raise money.” But the prospect of telling the American Jewish story to a public that doesn’t know many of its details appealed to donors, he says.
The museum, which grew out of a modest historical museum at the 270-year-old Congregation Mikveh Israel (“The Synagogue of the Revolution”) a half-block away, is now an independent institution.
“We’re not a Jewish institution, per se,” Nachman says. “This is in most respects a national institution. It’s not a Philadelphia museum,” adds Rosenzweig. “We are a national destination that happens to be located in Philadelphia.”
The Independence Mall area attracts some four million visitors a year; the museum is aiming for 250,000 visitors annually, most of them non-Jews. “It would not surprise us to exceed that,” Rosenzweig says.
“Why not New York? Why not Washington?” he hears all the time. “We’re exactly where we should be,” he answers. “We’re at the birthplace of liberty.”
The museum’s tacit message is how one group overcame problems, turning from the particular to the universal, and using its lessons of success for the benefit of wider society. With anti-Semitism on these shores mostly overcome, American Jews, various exhibits demonstrate, turned their attention in disproportionate numbers to such issues as civil rights and feminism.
The exhibits, without passing judgment, show one people’s past, moments of pride and moments of chagrin, warts and all. Jewish Nobel Prize winners and Jewish criminals, prejudice and acceptance, the ordinary and the extraordinary — whatever has made American Jewish history unique.
“Not all of it was rosy,” Rosenzweig says. “We’re not here to be cheerleaders,” to airbrush away unpleasant truths.
Foreign events like the Holocaust, the birth of Israel and the struggle for Soviet Jewry are presented in the context of American Jews’ activism and volunteer activities.
For visitors who wish to add their own memories to the historical record, there are two “It’s Your Story” video recording booths that will be archived by the museum. Text accompanying the exhibits will be in English, but audio tours will be available in Hebrew, Russian and Spanish.
“Every single piece of content” in the exhibits was vetted for accuracy by a team headed by Sarna, says Josh Perelman, who curated the museum.
Each item was winnowed from “10, 20 or 30” possible artifacts, says Perelman, who earlier worked at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.
The museum was designed by architect James Stewart Polshek, who created the Newseum in Washington and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.
Polshek’s design incorporates two interdependent forms – one translucent, one opaque. Facing west, toward Independence Mall, is a glass prism that is supposed to express the openness of America; the north wall is terracotta, symbolizing the strength of Jewish survival and the protective shelter of American freedom.
Inside, an 85-foot-high atrium connects all floors, each of which reflects a different aspect of freedom.
“I think it’s wonderful what they’re doing,” says Michael Glickman, CEO of the Center for Jewish History. “Any time you open up a new institution and put history on display, you create a new dialogue for the public … you make it contemporary.”
For a museum, establishing an artifacts collection is “a sleuthing process” conducted through databases, visits to other museums and conversations with experts in the field, Perelman says.
One example: the museum wanted a Confederate soldier’s uniform worn by a Jew to be part of a Civil War exhibit, to stand alongside a Union soldier’s uniform and show that Jews fought on both sides, he says. A long search was unproductive.
Finally, an employee of a museum in the South who was converting to Judaism took a special interest in the search. She went through her museum’s collection again and found a uniform that had belonged to Alexander Hart, a Jewish native of New Orleans who had served as a major in the Confederate Army.
“We never knew he was Jewish,” Perelman says. “We all got very excited.”
The Civil War exhibit now shows both sides of the North-South divide.
As for the Jacobs portrait, Kaplan says he and his wife Deanne, who together bought it at auction in 1999, decided to loan it to the museum because, “That’s where it belongs.”
The wheelchair-accessible museum will include an upscale Judaica shop, a kosher café, a 200-seat theater and event space for 600.
For security reasons, there is no underground parking; the museum has a single entrance, and 24/7 guards.
The lobby opens into a multimedia “Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame” display that showcases the lives of 18 prominent Jewish Americans, including Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis and Steven Spielberg.
But the machers, Rosenzweig says, are not the focus of the museum. Rather, it’s the unremarkable items, the cases of cups and hats and maps used by unremarkable people, like Solomon Jacobs, who made American Jewry. “It’s the stuff people held in their everyday lives.”
The Museum At A Glance
Location: 101 South Independence Mall East.
Along the Independence Mall in Philadelphia’s
Center City, a block north of Independence Hall,
where the Constitution and Declaration
of Independence were signed, across the street
from the Liberty Bell Center.
Size: 100,000 square feet. 25,000 square feet
in core collection.
Opens: Nov. 12-14 during invitation-only ceremonies.
Opens to the public on Nov. 26.
Price tag: $150 million.
Designer: Polshek Partnership Architects
(now Ennead Architects), New York.
Number of artifacts in collection: 20,000.
More than 1,000 currently on display.
Oldest artifact: Family-owned Bible
from Gomez family, 1661.
Largest artifact: Irving Berlin first piano, on which
he composed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Coolest artifact: Steven Spielberg’s
original 8-millimeter camera.
The museum’s website is nmajh.org.
Related Recommended Reading
Get The Jewish Week Newsletter
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.