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  • Review of the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia
  • Deborah Waxman (bio)

The new National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), located on the east side of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall in close proximity to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the National Constitutional Center, has a twofold focus. In the broadest manner, the institution celebrates the promise that American-style freedoms offers to all minority communities. This focus is refracted through the experience of how Jews who emigrated to or were born in America have taken advantage of those freedoms, thus creating the second and more explicit focal point. As with most celebrations, the museum’s orientation is overwhelmingly positive, though the core exhibition consistently strives to present multiple perspectives rather than advance simple boosterism of American Jews.

The NMAJH tells the story of Jews living in the United States through the prism of America and American values. It takes on the complex task of explaining Jews (a people sharing, sometimes contentiously, a religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage); Judaism (an evolving set of religious beliefs and practices, [End Page 65] shaped by diverse and conflicting modes of interpretation and authority); and Jewishness (a cultural and ethnic experience of living as a Jew, in relation to other Jews and to non-Jews) to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. The museum also aspires to explain America to all visitors, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, by explicating the ways that the Jewish community has flourished in and contributed to the broader American environment. The museum succeeds in the latter attempt, with more mixed success in the former one. In the overarching interpretive framework, “American” is ultimately privileged over “Jewish” in a manner that complicates any narration or interpretation of Jewishness.

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Figure 1.

The museum is located on Independence Mall and in both architecture and exhibition seeks to reflect American and Jewish themes and the intersection between them. National Museum of American Jewish History (dusk), © Jeff Goldberg/Esto, courtesy of National Museum of American Jewish History.

The museum’s placement on Independence Mall mandates engagement with the founding themes of the American republic—freedom, democratic participation, and good citizenship. Visitors to the Mall are, presumably, the non-Jews whom the curators and exhibit designers imagined might be inclined to visit such a community-specific museum. The building’s design intends to invite such exploration. According to concept papers generated by architect James Polshek, the design reflects the balance between open [End Page 66] American society and fragile democracy (reflected in the exterior glass sheathing) and, through the terracotta construction that mirrors nearby historic buildings, the durability of the Jewish people and America’s role as sheltering haven for Jews. The museum does not disappoint in regard to the exploration of American themes: the core exhibition’s chronology is illuminated by investigations into freedom. Traveling from the fourth floor downward, the exhibition explores “Foundations of Freedom: 1654–1880” (fourth floor); “Dreams of Freedom: 1880–1945” (third floor); and “Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945–Today” (second floor).

Through this focus, the exhibition’s creators are making suggestions about what America is and should be, that is, a place that welcomes ethnic and religious minorities and enables them to offer their gifts to the larger public, yet permits them to retain the distinctiveness that cultivated these gifts. This is not a straightforward narrative, and the challenges to the tolerance, let alone embrace, of America’s Jews are acknowledged in all of the periods leading up to World War II. The exhibit addresses explicit anti-Semitism in all periods of Jewish residency in America, from efforts to prevent their emigration in the colonial era to the infamous 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, from the nativist-driven closing of U.S. borders in 1924 that eliminated a haven for European Jews to restrictions on employment, education, and housing that stood until after World War II. However, the overwhelming orientation of the core exhibition is positive. America, it is asserted, is an embracing haven. The very presence of the museum on one of the national malls suggests vindication, and possibly even creates proof, for this perspective. Like the new...


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pp. 65-75
Launched on MUSE
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