National Museum of American Jewish History

Here's how to navigate Philly's newest addition

It is impossible to miss the gleaming glass monolith now overlooking Independence Mall. A monstrously modern building that, during construction, seemed out of place in its location. It is massive. Its flat facade, almost impenetrable. Made all the more detached-looking with a (seemingly) random placement of a neo-classical statue out front. But it is this statue, not the building’s cold austerity that gives visitors a glimpse of what is inside. This statue “Religious Liberty” — commissioned by B’nai B’rith and presented to “the people of the United States” in 1876 — directly honors a nation built on the central tenet of freedom. And religious freedom, and its struggles, is the tale the National Museum of American Jewish History attempts to tell.

[SIGNUP]Originally housed in a smaller building, the new $150-million museum (designed by architect James Stewart Polshek) now covers 350 years of American Jewish life within four floors. On the fourth floor (and encompassing over 200 years) is “Foundations of Freedom: 1654 – 1880.” Here, visitors explore the earliest Jewish settlements and the creation of communities while maintaining tradition. On the third and second floors are “Dreams of Freedom: 1880 – 1945” and “Choice and Challenges of Freedom: 1945 – Today.” These two floors provide insights on the mass migration into the United States, the impact that Jewish individuals had on the larger American culture, the American perspective during the World Wars, suburbanization, and civil rights.

In each of these serpentine hallways and rooms, information and objects are crammed into limited space. From Union and Confederate uniforms to an original acrostic created after Lincoln’s assassination. From a short documentary, created by Pulitzer Prize-winning Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), about Leo Frank, a Jewish man wrongly accused of a young girl’s murder in 1913 (Frank was later lynched by an Atlanta mob after his execution was overturned), to a menu from the “Trefa Banquet” (an infamous non-Kosher meal served at a celebration for the first graduating class of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College in 1883). Move too quickly and you might miss an amazing historical artifact or story.

The amount of text is sometimes overwhelming—especially when fellow visitors are also eager to see what you’re looking at. (The museum would hardly have been considered “crowded” during my visit, but I constantly apologized for stepping in front of objects and plaques. And dodging children who simply looked bored to tears.) This seems rather odd, as a third of each floor—the areas located by the windows overlooking the Mall—is practically empty. So with limited space it is easy to bypass many interesting objects.

This is most evident in the glass case hidden among the second floor’s culture section. Leonard Bernstein’s handwritten notes outlining the first seven scenes of West Side Story. A manuscript page from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. All of these remarkable cultural treasures are crowded into an easily missed, small display.

Throughout the museum, modern technology is utilized to enhance the experience. This is most evident in the “Only in America” Gallery/Hall of Fame. With two parentheses-shaped screens, visitors can sit and watch short films on 18 Jewish Americans who greatly impacted this country and the world. These 18 individuals (voted on by the public) include Stephen Spielberg, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Albert Einstein, Barbra Streisand, Jonas Salk, and Esteé Lauder. Complementing the films is the inclusion of objects from the honorees. Small glass cubes, scattered throughout the gallery, contain Spielberg’s first camera, Einstein’s pipe, a vial from Salk’s polio vaccine trials, and Irving Berlin’s piano (bedecked with a “God Bless America” manuscript).

But for me, the truly memorable exhibit is not behind glass. It’s not an overly written historical piece. Nor a grandiose atrium. It’s Your Story is simply a projection screen and two private rooms. In these rooms visitors can answer various questions and have their answers recorded. Sitting and watching recordings projected on a screen, you can’t help but be enthralled with generations of mothers, daughter, grandparents, grandchildren, and siblings sitting side-by-side and discussing their lives. Their own traditions. Their own memories. A cultural synergy of the past, present and future.

And it’s in these small moments where visitors find the true narrative of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Everyone has a story to tell. Though their stories may never be displayed in the museum, each is important to the American experience.