I live in Washington, DC, where the Holocaust Museum details the systematic persecution and destruction of Europe's Jews. But an engaging and substantive museum in Philadelphia demonstrates how American freedom allowed Jews to achieve and contribute in this country, despite a good deal of anti-Semitism and misunderstanding along the way. The museum's chronicling of the Jewish experience in America, with its challenges of discrimination and assimilation, is one that visitors of many backgrounds will recognize and Jewish families will treasure.
The first wonderful thing about the museum is its location across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. This makes a public statement about the role of American Jews in U.S. history, but also sends a message that liberty can and should provide immigrants with protection and opportunity. Also impressive is the museum's use of multimedia, which manages to be high-tech without being flashy. The technology serves the story.
The museum is structured chronologically. It's recommended that you start on the 4th floor, which is devoted to early Jewish settlers in colonial America and Jewish participation in the nation's first century. Before you enter the galleries, you are struck by the expansive views from a wall of windows facing onto Independence Hall and National Historical Park, which sets the stage to learn how the history of Jews in the United States is a very American story. Nearby, a short multimedia presentation provides a foundation for what is on that floor. Each level of the museum begins that way: with the view and the intro. The multimedia shows on the 4th and 3rd floors are especially impressive.
The 4th floor galleries themselves display an array of artifacts and documents about a period of time when Jews came to America for the same variety of reasons as other groups and made their way all over the emerging nation. We see how America and this very small minority population came to deal with each other. I found the material about Jewish participation in the Civil War particularly interesting.
The 3rd floor begins in 1880 with the mass migration to the U.S. of Jews from Eastern Europe, then relates the Jewish experience after the crackdown on immigration in the 1920s, and gives the American Jewish perspective through two world wars. Because of the sheer number of Jews who arrived during this period, this is the back story of most of the Jewish families in the United States. So, while the outlines of this experience may be familiar to many visitors, the museum adds richness and detail using evocative historical objects, period environments and cutting-edge interactive technology. Fun activity: line up at Ellis Island and see if you can win admission into the United States.
The 2nd floor, covering 1945 to the present, focuses on a period in which America's freedoms allowed Jews to integrate into national life on a level Jews have experienced very few times in their history anywhere in the world. It shows Jews following the lure of suburbia, advancing to the highest positions in many professions, and confronting questions of how to observe and preserve Judaism in modern America. It examines the creation of the state of Israel and its impact on American Jews. Most significantly to me, there are depictions of Jewish involvement in postwar culture and counterculture, especially the struggle for civil rights, worker rights and, in general, the extension of freedom not only to Jews but to all peoples. After the galleries, guests can enter booths where a clever exhibit lets them videotape for posterity their reactions to the museum and the stories of their own families.
Back down on the first floor, you can rest in front of an exhibit called Only In America. On the surface, it's a kind of Jewish Hall of Fame. But with historical objects and multimedia presentations, it explores the background of a number of famous American Jews in the context of their lives as Americans. Within a few steps of each other, you can see Steven Spielberg's first Super 8 camera, Irving Berlin's amazing transposing piano, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yiddish typewriter, and other cool artifacts. Then have a nosh at the small cafe and browse through a nice museum store.
We probably spent five hours touring the museum, since there were thousands of artifacts on display accompanied by well-written explanations. But even if you only have an hour, you can enjoy the understated design and engaging multimedia. Children will have fun discovering the many kid-height nooks and crannies which their parents and grandparents may have walked right by.
Congratulations to Philadelphia (and the museum staff) for creating this first-class museum.
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