National Museum of American Jewish History Review – Only in America and More

When my husband invited me to join him on a trip to Newark, DE, I jumped at the opportunity that would also allow for a visit Philadelphia.  This would give me the chance to visit the six-month old National Museum of American Jewish History that has received very positive publicity.   Several years earlier we did a similar trip which was my first trip to Philadelphia, fulfilling a lifelong wish.  I was thrilled to see The Liberty Bell, Constitution Square and everything nearby.  Here was where “freedom rang”.  Walking around, we were surprised to see a small red brick building that was the National Museum of American Jewish History.  The exhibits were fascinating but limited.  On this return trip, we were amazed to see its new incarnation. It has transformed into a dramatic,” green” building with an amazing view and four floors of exhibits with the latest in multi-media that presents a story of American Jewish History from 1645 to the present.

Approaching it, we immediately captivated by its appearance.  It was designed by Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership), and opened in November 2010 where it is located on the famous Independence Mall in Philadelphia, PA just down the block from the Liberty Bell.  It is a state-of-the-art building that is functional and visually attractive and the architecture is also symbolic of the way in which American Jewish history evolved. The Museum design is a composition of two interdependent forms—one translucent, the other opaque. The opaque design in the translucent glass represents the integration of Jews into all aspects of American life. The west façade that faces Independence Mall is a glass prism that symbolizes the openness of America, as well as the perennial fragility of freedom and democracy. The north wall is constructed of terracotta, suggesting the strength and survival of the Jewish people and the protective shelter of American freedom.  When we stepped inside, we felt a sense of space and safety in the 85-foot-high, light-filled atrium that connects all the levels from the entry level to the exhibition floors above and the Dell Theater and Education Center below.  This is the only museum in the nation dedicated solely to telling the story of Jews in America, and its story begins on the fourth level.

Confederate two dollar bill with a portrait of Judah P. Benjamin on it, Columbia, South Carolina, December 2, 1862 Jews fought on both sides in the Civil War and served in important leadership positions. The most prominent Jew in either camp was Judah P. Benjamin (1811-1884), who served as attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state for the Confederacy

“Standing directly across from the Liberty Bell, a block south of the National Constitution Center and one block north of the birthplace of American liberty, Independence Hall, the Museum’s inspiring new home is a powerful testament to what all free people can accomplish, for themselves and society at large,” said Michael Rosenzweig, the Museum’s president and CEO. “Since many other immigrant ethnic groups that came to this country faced challenges similar to those confronted by Jews, the Museum is a place for all Americans to explore.”

* Interactive map table in the “Innovation and Expansion” gallery, Jay Rosenblatt, courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History provides a framework for the events that shaped the transformation of the U.S. borders, economy and populations in the 19th century, fueled by the immigration of European Jews to this country and their role in our nation’s westward expansion

The core exhibition which explores the challenges faced by Jews since their arrival on this continent in 1654 really begins a bit before this time with one Jew in a boat. It moves along through Colonial times, where there was a very small group of Jews who did not have an easy time. There are more than 1,200 artifacts, as well as original films and 13 state-of-the-art interactive displays.  Traveling from the fourth floor to the third, second and first, we traced the story of various forms of worship, of the different immigrant waves.  Slowly and steadily the story of an expanding numbers of Jews and the place they began to take in all aspects of American society emerged until we reached the first floor and the Only in America exhibit. I had the chance to talk with Harriet, who is a volunteer at the museum, not a docent, but she volunteers on Friday mornings and again on Sunday with her husband.  Her favorite part of the museum in the Only in America exhibit and I loved it, too.  But I think my very favorite part of the museum was the theater where the story of Hollywood was revealed.  This was a macrocosm in a sense of the American Jewish story.  Do allow the time to enjoy this fascinating story.

Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame, Barry Halkin/Halkin Photography, courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History

Certainly the most spectacular attraction is the multimedia exhibition – the Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame – showcasing the challenges and opportunities a select group of extraordinary Jewish Americans encountered on the road to remarkable achievement. Among the first 18 honorees are Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Estée Lauder, Jonas Salk, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand. Providing individual filmed testimonials for these individuals are such notables as director J.J. Abrams, author Michael Chabon and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. “The remarkable individuals in this gallery exemplify a central theme of the Museum: that a hallmark of the American experience has been an unparalleled opportunity to aspire, achieve and possibly change the world,” Rosenzweig said.

The curator of the core exhibition is Josh Perelman, Ph.D., the Museum’s deputy director of exhibitions, programs and collections, and chief curator, who worked with a team of leading historians of American Jewish history from across the country.

Some other noteworthy features of the museum are the Education Center, the 200-seat Dell Theater, and a multipurpose event space with capacity for 600 on the fifth floor overlooking Independence Mall, a kosher café and a Museum store with exquisite items.

This is a wonderful place to visit and as a new museum it is changing and growing.  It has an important story to tell and does so in a way that captivates young and old. For more information, visit  Note that tickets can’t be purchased at the museum on Saturdays.

NMAJH, 101 South Independence Mall East, Philadelphia, PA 19106-2517, 215.923.3811

There was so much to see that we chose not to eat in the café but to take a break and return.  The cashier mentioned that “FORK” was just down the street.  Without a recommendation, we would have passed it by, which would have been our loss.  It was our “perfect restaurant”.  If I could take it home, I would.  We loved it ambiance, it’s décor, it’s food, it’s service. I had a vegetarian eggplant-tomato soup and my husband had a tapas dish.  The beer was made on the premises and was the best beer I have ever tasted and I hate beer. The desserts were chevre cheesecake and house - made  pear  &  black  pepper sorbet  pistachio french macaroon.
Fork restaurant . bar, 306 Market Street, 215.625.9425

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