The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), the only museum
dedicated to telling the story of American Jewish life, opened this
weekend on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The 100,000 square foot
museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, cost $150 million. James Stewart Polshek, the architect for the Clinton Library, designed the striking glass and terracotta building.
Thirteen thousand people from all fifty states have signed up to be founding
members of the museum. Major donors include computer giant Michael Dell, director Steven
Spielberg, builder Robert Toll, and Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider.
Prominent philanthropist Suzanne Cohn, who was hosting a Sabbath dinner for the board of trustees and dignitaries on opening weekend, evinced the pride of many Jews, “This is a triumph for the Jews.Today, being a Jew and an American is interchangeable.”
Josh Perelman, chief curator, maintains, “Independence Mall was the perfect place for this museum. This museum is a monument to what can be achieved with freedom.” NMAJH, which expects to draw 250,000 visitors annually, celebrates 350 years of Jewish life in America. While the museum presents an original telegram warning about the Nazis, NMAJH relegates the Holocaust as well as Israel and religion to a supporting role.
Steven Spielberg’s first camera, Barbra Streisand’s costume for “Yentl”, and a picture of Soviet Jewry leader Connie Smukler from Philadelphia are among the 1200 items currently displayed. Jewish gangsters such as Arnold Rothstein, featured in HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire", are mentioned but the story of Leo Frank, the only Jew ever lynched in the United States, is highlighted.
Interactive displays and films enrich the exhibits. Performances of stars such as Gilda Radner and Sarah Silverman are rolling continuously. In a retrospective of the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and Eddie Cantor, Director Carl Reiner's narration inadvertently advertises the theme of the museum. He said, “In the 20’s and 30’s, you did not have to be a Jewish to be a comedian, but it surely helped.” While Hollywood is exhaustively portrayed, Wall Street and the fashion industry are curiously bypassed.
Bureaucratic red tape led to the creation of a national Jewish museum in Philadelphia and not in New York or Washington. Leon Levy, president of the Mikve Israel Synagogue, explained, “When the Independence Mall was being created, the Federal Government wanted to give land on the mall to Mikve Israel, the nation’s second oldest synagogue, The government could not give land to a religious institution so the board of directors created a museum. The possessions of former Mikve Israel members such as Rebecca Gratz, the inspiration for the Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe, Haym Solomon, who financed the Revolutionary War, and Robert Morris, the first US Treasury Secretary, served as the basis of the museum.”
Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the museum, said, “The new museum could not have been built without former Philadelphian Sidney Kimmel and George Ross. Sidney Kimmel, the founder of Jones Apparel Group, gave $25 million when the museum was just an idea. His donation conferred credibility on the project. George Ross, a former partner at Goldman Sachs in Philadelphia, raised singlehandedly almost all of the $150 million needed for the museum." Friends of billionaire Kimmel said that he gave such a large donation because the museum told his story.
Rosenzweig, whose favorite item in the museum is prolific composer Irving Berlin’s piano, urged everyone to visit. “This is every immigrant’s story – be they Italian, Irish, or Asian.”