New Philadelphia museum celebrates Jewish life

PHILADELPHIA Fri Nov 5, 2010 8:26pm IST

1 of 2. The new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia features a five-story glass facade looking out over Independence Mall, in this undated handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/National Museum of American Jewish History/Handout

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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - Albert Einstein's pipe, Irving Berlin's piano and Jonas Salk's test tubes are just a few of the historic items in a new museum that celebrates Jewish life in America.

The National Museum of American Jewish History, which is in a new building that sits in the heart of Philadelphia's historic Independence Mall, opens on November 26. It traces the history of Jewish Americans from 1654 -- when the first permanent Jewish community began in New Amsterdam -- to the present day.

It is also the first museum to present the history of American Jews, focusing on themes such as immigration, assimilation and the maintenance of cultural and religious identity in a country where the strictures of Jewish life in the Old World no longer applied.

"The American Jewish experience is enormously important to the grand sweep of Jewish history," said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum's president. "It has not been well told, and we exist to fill that void."

Visitors to the four floors of exhibition space can see an 18th-century Moroccan torah scroll that was brought to a synagogue in Savannah, Georgia; a uniform worn by a Jewish soldier who fought on the Confederate side in the American Civil War, and a ledger in which James Madison, one the authors of the U.S. Constitution, recorded the contribution of a Jewish financier to the revolutionary cause.

The Jewish American story is also told with an array of interactive displays such as an illuminated map table showing how Jewish immigrants spread across the United States, and a simulated interview in which visitors are asked to play the role of a newly arrived immigrant being interrogated by an official at New York's Ellis Island.

After touring the exhibitions, visitors enter a room in which they are invited to consider contemporary questions such as "Should all American Jews support the state of Israel?" or "Should religion play a role in American politics?"

Visitors can write their responses on post-it notes which are scanned, projected on to the darkened wall of the room, and archived.

Rosenzweig said the museum aims to show how the freedom discovered by Jews in America is an integral part of American history and is also relevant to non-Jews.

That's also shown by the museum's location, which is a short walk from Independence Hall where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was written, and from the Liberty Bell, where the Declaration was read in 1776, Rosenzweig said.

"We think it will resonate for all Americans," he said. "It's fitting that the new institution -- which replaces a much smaller museum a few blocks away -- is in Philadelphia where the United States was founded, rather than New York with its rich Jewish tradition, or Washington DC with its many national institutions," Rosenzweig said.

"There really is no better, more compelling location for our institution than where it is now," he said.

(Reporting by Jon Hurdle; editing by Patricia Reaney)

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