On Saturday night, the National Museum of American Jewish History celebrated its opening with a gala, headlined by comedian Jerry Seinfeld and singer Bette Midler. Actors Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, Eagle’s owners Jeffrey and Christiana Lurie, Senator Arlen Specter, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, CBS News anchor Pat Ciarrocchi, and radio personality Jerry Blavat were among the 998 people that paid up to $5000 a ticket to attend.
Jerry Seinfeld, the masters of ceremony for the night, opened the event by describing a recent visit to see his mother in south Florida, naturally. He wondered why she and her fellow old people lived in a minimum- security prison. “Who is going to steal them?” he asked. His mother, age 89, still drives so he installed a cataract corrected windshield on her car.
Seinfeld seemed to forget that he was performing for the opening of the National Museum of Jewish History because he talked mostly about toilets and marriage. He describes “being single at 45 as a Jesus Christ moment.” “Jesus Christ, you are still single,” quipped Seinfeld.
Seinfeld, whose hit television show revolved around the lives of 4 single people, now only hangs out with couples because he has nothing in common with bachelors. “When someone tells me that they have a girlfriend, I tell them you are playing wiffle ball or paint ball. I am in Iraq with fully loaded weapons,” he joked. “While I want to pick for $200 the Jeopardy Category of the last movie that my wife and I saw together, she chooses and places all her money on the topic of conversation that we had 8 years ago at 3 am in the morning.”
Seinfeld wondered, “Why do the ads for Viagra recommend that you see a doctor if your erection lasts more than 4 hours. I would be going to see the doctor by hour three. I would thrown on my poncho and get to the doctor’s office.”
When the comedy ended, Comcast-Spectacor CEO Ed Snider took the stage in all seriousness to talk about “Only in America,” the museum exhibit he conceived, funded for $5 million, and helped create. Snider explained his involvement, “I want to celebrate how good America has been in the Jews. It is a way of showing my appreciation.”
With votes on the internet from 56 countries, this exhibit honors 18 Jews in the first rotation. The honorees include Jonas Salk, the creator of vaccine for Polio, conductor Leonard Bernstein, baseball player Sandy Koufax, and singer/actress/director Barbra Streisand. Snider introduced Streisand by saying, “There are only 3 living people in the “Only in America” exhibit and we are honored to have one of them here tonight.”
While Streisand is an international star, the star of the evening was Jones Apparel Group founder Sidney Kimmel, who kicked off the fundraising drive for the museum with a donation of $25 million. Kimmel, called the quiet giant by the magazine Women’s Wear Daily, characteristically refused to speak during the dinner. Earlier, he said, “Freedom, which Jews have enjoyed at unprecedented levels in America, allows anything to possible.
His wife, Caroline Kimmel, made a speech in his honor. She said, “Sidney was raised at 4th and Mifflin during the Great Depression by his cab driver father. Sidney still lives by the values that his father, who pooled his tips with other cabbies, passed down to Sidney. Those preserved values inspired him to heed the call when Mayor Rendell was struggling to fund the Avenue of the Arts and led to the creation of the Kimmel Center.
She continued, “He is the largest individual donor to cancer in the United States with four Kimmel cancer centers in the United States including at Jefferson and Johns Hopkins. He has chosen to make a difference and I know that he is not finished.”
Bette Midler wrapped up the evening with performance that rocked the house. In opening, she asked the question that has been on everybody’s mind, “Why is there a Jewish Museum here? There are more Jews in my apartment building in New York than all of Philadelphia.”
She said, “She was very proud to being playing for her people and guessed she was there because Streisand said no.” Midler promised to only perform songs written by Jewish Americans in honor of the opening.
She had some ideas for the museum. She suggested, “It would be right on the nose if the museum had a rhinoplasty wing. Probably, there isn’t a sport icon hall in the museum. It is just a doorway. It is shame that accounting is not a sport.”
“This dinner is a good place to be exhausted,” joked Midler. “There are 100 doctors to take care of me and double that amount of lawyers capable of suing if there is something wrong.”
In the only serious moment of her performance, Midler told her audience the debt that Jewish singers owe to prolific composer Irving Berlin. “He allowed us to dream. He made it okay for us not to be a butcher or shopkeeper.” Then she sang Berlin’s God Bless American because “White Christmas” would not be appropriate.”
No performance of Midler’s would be complete without some bawdiness. She reprised the role of Soph. “The elderly man said that I would have been gentler with you if I had known that you were a virgin. My response to him was that I would have taken off my pantyhose if I had known that you could get it up.”
Midler reminded the audience of her Philly connection. She used to play for Larry Magid at the Bijou. She ended the evening with a medley of songs written by Jewish American composers such as Simon and Garfunkel, Neal Sedaka, and Steven Sondheim.
The museum was official opened at noon on Sunday, November 14. 2400 founding members of the museum along with dignitaries such as Senators Specter, Casey, and Lautenberg, and Congressman Gerlach attended.
50 shofars, the Jewish ceremonial ram’s horn, were sounded near the beginning of the ceremony. Andrea Mitchell, the NBC anchor, was the mistress of ceremonies. Mayor Nutter spoke first about his pride in this national museum being in Philadelphia on Independence Mall in the shadow of the President’s House and the African American museum. He stressed, “This is a museum for all Americans. It tells the story of all ethnic groups.”
Governor Rendell talked next about his lack of religious training but the request from his father not to forget he was Jewish. Then he credited George Ross, co-chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, with the state’s involvement. “The original contribution from the state came from Governor Schweiker. I could never refuse George Ross even when I was mayor of Philadelphia. The state, while I was governor, gave four separate donations to the museum.”
Vice President Biden said that there was no other city for this museum because of the 350 years of Jewish history here. He stirringly used the props at hand- the Liberty Bell. Biden said, “A Rabbi in Moldavia could not believe that the Liberty Bell was inscribed with words from the Jewish bible. He asked those that came to America to check it out for him. They reported to him that yes it was true about the biblical inscription, but the bell was cracked. Hearing this, he exhorted them to mend the bell. Jews, from that day forward, have been mending the bell by their thousands of acts of kindness.”
The ceremony ended with the nailing on the door of a Mezuzah, a object containing religious text, by Rabbi Irving Greenberg.
Actor and director James Brolin credited himself with bringing Barbra Streisand here. “When I was filming, “Standing Ovation”, the museum started talking to me about Barbra attending. She was really touched about being honored in the Only in America, so I put them in touch with her manager Marty Erlichman, who runs her life. I really like Philadelphia. The premier for Standing Ovations was the best party that Philadelphia had ever seen. I really want to see the historical parts of the city. George Rice and George Reed, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, are my relatives. I wanted to see their statues.”