by Jill Finkelstein

Reporting Back: The National Museum of American Jewish History

This past weekend, I attended the opening of the National Museum of American Jewish History. I have to admit, I was blown away. Unfortunately, I did not attend the gala with Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld, however I was lucky enough to attend the Only in America opening ceremony, which included speeches from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Governor Ed Rendell, and Vice President Joe Biden. Having the Vice President attend to celebrate the museum made it even more exciting. While many of the speakers discussed the significance of the museum’s location at “the most historic square mile in America,” Governor Rendell shared how his commitment to the museum came from a promise he made to his father as a young child. Though his parents chose not to give him a formal Jewish education, his father told him “I never want you to forget that you are Jews, I never want you to forget your heritage… the struggles Jewish people have taken for thousands of years.” The opening ceremony also included the affixing of the mezuzah, 50 shofar blowers who helped kick off the ceremony, and the Philadelphia Singers who led the crowd in Shehechiyanu and Irving Berlin’s G-d Bless America.

The museum itself was quite impressive! Our open house tour began at 3:00pm, and the two and a half hours was definitely not enough time to explore. With its four floors, the museum’s layout is similar to the Holocaust museum beginning at the top floor. Most of my knowledge of American Jewish history involves the emigration of Eastern European Jews in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. [Editor's note: learn more about the history of Jewish women in America with a special peek into our Summer 2010 article, "What's in that Diary?"] I was fascinated to learn about the Jews who emigrated during the 1600s to early 1800s and role that Jews played in colonial life. I was stunned when I came across a covered wagon. All those years that I played Oregon Trail, I never realized that there were Jews who made the same journey out west. Another exciting exhibit was the model home from the 1950s that gave visitors a look into mid-century Jewish family life. It even included a television that played classic Jewish TV moments, like Sammy Davis Jr.’s commercial for Manischewitz wine and clips from The Goldbergs.

Unfortunately, just as I approached the section dedicated to feminism on the second floor, the docents quickly started escorting everyone out. Luckily the museum will be open to the public on November 26th and I’ll be able to resume my tour!

–Jill Finkelstein

© 2011 Lilith Magazine