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January 26, 2011 9:02 am

Museum of American Jewish History Opens in Philly

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The narrative begins inauspiciously in 1654 with the arrival of 23 Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam, whose governor, Peter Stuyvesant, greeted them as “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” It ends triumphantly, with an “Only in America” Hall of Fame touting the achievements of Jonas Salk, Estée Lauder, Leonard Bernstein and 15 other American Jews.

The formation of Jewish-American identity is one of the great themes of the new $150 million, 100,000-square-foot National Museum of American Jewish History. So is the pursuit of both freedom and success—a storyline shared by other immigrants to American shores.

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Originally created for Philadelphia’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration, the Jewish museum has moved a half-block south, to a metaphorically resonant location near the heart of Independence Mall. Overlooking the Liberty Bell and the President’s House, with views of both Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center, the museum explores how Jews both experienced and helped shape America’s progress toward its own ideals.

The building design by Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects) uses interlocking volumes of glass and terra cotta, contrasting fragility with solidity. The hand-painted glass facade is also meant to symbolize transparency and welcome, while the terra cotta evokes historic Philadelphia and the building’s red-brick and terra cotta neighbors. The six-level interior is lightened by skylights and an expansive atrium, with glass-stepped staircases that provide easy orientation and access between floors. The openness of these spaces contrasts with the dimly lit, cramped and noisy galleries containing the bulk of the core exhibition.

Both architecture and exhibition mirror the tension in the museum’s mission, between full-throated celebration and careful delineation of the challenges American Jews have faced—both to their identity as Jews and their citizenship in the U.S.

Designed by Gallagher & Associates, with Josh Perelman, the museum’s deputy director of exhibitions, programs and collections, as curator, the core exhibition is mostly chronological, as well as dense and historically nuanced. Its ambitious narrative sprawls across 3½ floors and dozens of individual galleries, some too narrow to accommodate weekend crowds.

The design philosophy here can be summed up as “more is more.” Crammed with small artifacts, images and labels, the show also employs media extensively, from film clips to (overused) ambient sound. Loud interactive installations add to the tumult. (Headphones would have been an easy fix.) As a result, the show seems lively, but can be challenging—even tedious—to navigate.

The exhibition touches on disparate Jewish communities, from Charleston to San Francisco; individual Jews who have made a mark on American society, from labor organizer Rose Schneiderman to the gangsters Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky; America’s ambivalent welcome, and the struggles of Jews to retain, reshape—or, in some cases, cast off—their culture and religion.

Despite their small numbers, Jews have popped up, Zelig-like, throughout American history: They were early settlers and Western pioneers; they fought and died in the Civil War, and every other war; they suffered in the Depression, though not disproportionately; they fled to the suburbs with the rest of the country, and basked in postwar prosperity. In 1948, American Jews welcomed the new state of Israel, and in the 1960s and ’70s they embraced social causes from civil rights and feminism to the anti-Vietnam War movement.

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