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Jewish Museum Opens Its Doors to History: Past, Present, Future

November 11, 2010
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Is that "E.T." and Elliott on their way to this weekend's gala grand opening?

American Jewish history never had it so good.

As the new National Museum of American Jewish History prepares its gala grand-opening weekend from Nov. 12-14 -- and its official public premiere on Nov. 26 -- it is readily apparent that this state-of-the-art structure is no mere museum piece.

Evidence abounds in statuary form: The museum is anchored by two sculptures, reflecting the museum's freedom motif: Ben Rubin's "Beacon," a fluid LED light show of a sculpture, is banked in the top section of the glass exterior at Fifth and Market streets, while the 19th-century "Religious Liberty," created by Sir Moses Jacob Ezekiel, holds court in the museum's public plaza.

Both set the museum on its path toward education and entertainment, serving as fulcrums in what museum executives hope is a full-service foray into American Jewish history.

Josh Perelman, museum deputy director of programming and historian, as well as chief curator for the core exhibition, sees both sculptures, standing for the old and the new, as artful reminders of the museum's positioning and programming, "representing the opportunity one has for creativity, innovation and achievement when you live in a free society."

Let freedom ring -- and the new museum is within a "hear ye, hear ye" of the Liberty Bell on the Mall -- is the bellwether for the $150 million showcase, representing different periods in American Jewish history.

On the one hand, you have "Religious Liberty," donated to the city by B'nai B'rith during the nation's centennial celebration, "representing the freedom of Jews," bookended by "Beacon," which Perelman describes as a "modern-day multimedia work whose content is rooted in Talmud."

And both, adds Perelman, "resonate in the exhibition itself."

'Your Tired, Your Poor'
Bridging 350 years of history, since the inchoate settlement of Brazilian Jews in what would become New York, the museum connects past and present, with a hint of the future.

The museum takes seriously Emma Lazarus' exhortations to "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," along with the ambitiously creative, as evidenced in sections devoted to the hoopla of Hollywood and the Jewish merchants who made department stores household names.

In talking about Barbra Streisand, one of the inductees in the museum's "Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame," it is as if Perelman sees her as a stand-in for all the Jews whose history shows their need "to push the boundaries in earning a place" in the pantheon of achievers.

(Honoree Streisand pushes back: "The museum tells an important Jewish story, but it also underscores the fact that our country affords Americans, regardless of their religion, creed or ethnicity, the freedom to live, achieve and contribute in their own way to the culture and spirit of America," Streisand said in response to a query.)

However, with all of its achievements and artistic innovation, is this museum hemmed in by a bit of provincialism? Will non-Jews find a place in the sun inside this setting in Old City?

What is shown "represents the essence of American freedom," replies Perelman, "and you don't have to be Jewish to accept the basic tenets of liberty and freedom that are so much a part of the American Jewish experience."

Although long a fixture in the historic Old City, with its small presence adjacent to Congregation Mikveh Israel, the National Museum of American Jewish History has transformed more than its locale.

The $150 million institution -- started with an initial $25 million grant provided by Philadelphia philanthropist Sidney Kimmel -- is throwing open its doors and catapulting the public into a 100,000-square-foot experience.

The five-story museum filled with sweeping explorations of 350 years of American Jewish history stands in contrast to its predecessor, half-a-block away in a recessed space that, at 15,000-square feet, is dwarfed by this new juggernaut.

A walk into the museum itself is a walk back in time, featuring stop-and-watch displays, films, interactive exhibits and artifacts from Hollywood, as well as the holy icons of pop culture.

Plain, if not so simple, "the story we tell is of freedom," says Michael Rosenzweig, museum CEO and president, a story fully re-inforced by the museum's historical location abutting Independence Mall, a location that he anticipates will help attract some 250,000 visitors a year to this "national destination."

One of the central tensions of the American Jewish experience is between the freedom to practice one's sense of Judaism -- "even being free to marry the president's daughter," says Rosenzweig, with a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chelsea Clinton's recent wedding to Marc Mezvinsky -- and "the freedom to not be Jewish," as indicated in some aspects of the exhibit that focus on secular Judaism.

The museum has universal appeal, says its president, so it "can appeal to non-Jews who will find it all an interesting story of how we've achieved so much as a people -- and, of course, contributed so much as well. It shows just what an immigrant ethnic group can achieve."

The passing of time is strung out through the exhibit's triptych presentation: "Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880," "Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945," and "Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945-Today."

Historian Jonathan Sarna hails the museum for its uniqueness. "It is the only museum totally dedicated to American Jewish history, says the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, who is chief historian at the Old City facility.

"The vast majority of Jewish museums are focused on the death and destruction of the Jewish people; I am glad to see one that focuses on the creativity and success of American Jews," says the Philadelphia native.

He cites the relevance of the museum's positioning amid the other icons of Independence Mall. The Constitution Center and Liberty Bell, he says, serve as theoretical statements of the importance of freedom; the museum, he contends, is a living example of it.

"This is the place," explains Sarna, "to think about the history of American Jews, showing what the past can teach about the present and the future.

"In some ways," says the eminent historian, "we are at a moment in time in which the American Jewish community is more interested in its own past.

"The community should be aware of its own history."

Visitors should leave this new institution marveling at its layout, surprised by its offerings -- but also asking, he says,"Who are these Jews?"

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