As the new exhibits listed here indicate, there is much more to regional Jewish museums than excellent air conditioning.
Looking for fun infused with Judaism, splashed with culture and garnished with education? Want to investigate family history, world events or view the work of modern Jewish artists? From New York to New Jersey, Philadelphia and Maryland, regional Jewish museums have summer schedules packed with exhibits and events.
Jewish Museum of New York
From ancient history to modern art, the Jewish Museum of New York has a myriad of exhibits. Founded in 1904 in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the museum is now housed in the Warburg Mansion on Fifth Avenue, which was built in 1908 and designed by architect Charles P.H. Gilbert in the French Gothic style.
Two current exhibits showcase modern Jewish artists. Created by the design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, “Six Things” (through Aug. 4) is one sculpture and five short films about happiness. “R. B. Kitaj: Personal Library” (through Aug. 11) displays 33 screen prints created by the internationally celebrated painter and graphic artist.
The Jewish Museum has plenty of creative fun for kids. Art Adventure Mondays will be held every Monday in July. From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., young museum-goers explore the galleries using stories and sketching. From 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., they are led through art projects inspired by the works of artists Jack Goldstein and Barbara Bloom. Art Adventure is for kids ages 4-7, and is free with museum admission.
Kids age 3 and older might dig up a love of archeology in the Jewish Museum’s “Archaeology Zone: Discovering Treasures from Playgrounds to Palaces,” a permanent exhibit included in the price of admission. Kids can channel their inner Indiana Jones by piecing together vessels, weighing artifacts, interpreting symbols and donning period costumes. “We worked with Judaica and archaeology experts to make sure this was 100 percent accurate, enjoyable for kids and professionally produced,” says Rachel Katz, senior manager of family programs at the museum. “We are the only museum in the city that has a kid-friendly exhibit focusing on the role of objects over time. The Natural History Museum focuses on paleontology, but this is about ancient Israel. Also, I think that the interactive nature of the exhibit is unique among Jewish museums.”
Archaeology Zone begins with a video telling the story of an ancient jug handle that belonged to one of the kings of Israel. Through different installations, the handle is traced through multiple archaeological eras, including Iron, Roman, Ottoman and the modern period. “There is a continuous Jewish thread to the story,” Katz says. “We see this as a way for families to get an inspirational introduction to archaeology and, specifically, archaeology in Israel.”
Jewish Museum of New York, 1109 5th Ave., New York, N.Y.; thejewishmuseum.org, 212-423-3200
Center For Jewish History
Founded in Manhattan in 1892 as the American Jewish Historical Society, the Center For Jewish History now includes four partner organizations: American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Combined, the collections span 600 years and include 500,000 volumes, 100 million documents, thousands of pieces of artwork, textiles, ritual objects, recordings, films and photographs.
“Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” (through Aug. 11), explores Jews’ roles on both sides of the conflict. Artifacts from Civil War Judaica collector Robert D. Marcus of Fairfax, Va., include Haggadot and dreidels used by Civil War soldiers. Biographical information on six Jewish Medal of Honor recipients sits next to that of Judah P. Benjamin, a Jew who served as the Confederacy’s Secretary of State. Three mini-documentaries detail Jews and slavery and President Lincoln’s role in reversing anti-Semitic practices, like Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s attempt to expel Jews from Tennessee.
“The Civil War was the first opportunity presented to Jews in large numbers to participate fully in American life,” says Dr. Jonathan Karp, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society. “It was war that let Jews demonstrate their belonging and membership. The Civil War battleground gave the same Jews the opportunity to perform numerous services — as soldiers, nurses, running patriotic fairs, being spies, and also doing something very traditional — peddling.”
Two other exhibits explore Jews’ role in Germany and Russia. Lederhosen and Löwenbräu don’t sound particularly Jewish, but “Beer, Art and Revolution: Jewish Life in Munich, 1806 – the Present” (through July 31) showcases the city’s pre-Nazi culture. “Floating Worlds and Future Cities: The Genius of Lazar Khidekel, Suprematism and the Russian Avant-Garde” (through Oct. 31) is the first large-scale, U.S. exhibit of the work of Khidekel, an artist and architect who worked with Marc Chagall, among others.
Center For Jewish History, 15 West 16th St., New York, 212-294-8301, cjh.org
Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage
Russian Jews have a long history in the United States in general, and New jersey in particular. Beginning in 1891, Russian Jews began emigrating to Woodbine, N.J., where they created an agricultural colony under the direction of Baron de Hirsch. In 1893, they built the Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue, which is now a National Historic Landmark and home to the Sam Azeez Museum. Haven’t been to “the Sam” in awhile? Now is the time to go. This is the first summer that the museum’s $1 million renovation will be on full display. Michael Azeez, who founded the museum in his father’s honor, donated it to Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in December 2012. The museum and its property were worth $5 million, making it the largest donation in Stockton’s history.
“I wish for the museum’s efforts to continue,” Azeez says. “There exists a synergy between the museum, Stockton’s general studies program, its Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center, and its community partnerships. This collaboration enables the museum to advance its goals, accessibility and visibility.”
Visitors can trace their family history, explore the arts and culture, sports, farming, factories and religious worship of Woodbine’s Jews. Special emphasis is placed on religious and ethnic tolerance toward Jews and other immigrants.
The Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage, 610 Washington Ave., Woodbine, N.J., thesam.org, 609-861-5355
National Museum of American Jewish History
When did Jews first come to America? Learn that and much more at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The museum traces the contributions and challenges of Jewish Americans from 1654 through the present. On July Fourth, the museum will be open on a “pay what you wish” system and will host free activities that include self-guided family tours, story times, letter-writing with quills and pin decorating. On July 19, the museum opens “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats,” the first major U.S. exhibition of the work of Ezra Jack Keats, the award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books like Whistle for Willie, Peter’s Chair and The Snowy Day.
National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 South Independence Mall East, Philadelphia, nmajh.org; 215-923-3811
Jewish Museum of Maryland
Located just blocks from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Jewish Museum of Maryland includes three exhibition galleries and two synagogues: Lloyd Street Synagogue, built in 1845, and B’nai Israel Synagogue, built in 1876. The museum offers programs and special events for children and adults, as well as a family history center. Special exhibits like “ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950” and “Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore” have been at the museum and “Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” will be on display Oct. 13 to Feb. 28, 2014. At press time, the museum’s summer schedule was not yet confirmed.
Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore, jewishmuseummd.org, 410-732-6400
This article was originally printed in This Summer, a Jewish Exponent magazine.