Around the Jewish World: New Museum Exhibit Explores Creation of Jewish Identity in U.S.
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Around the Jewish World: New Museum Exhibit Explores Creation of Jewish Identity in U.S.

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Grappling with Jewish identity in America is not a late-20th-century invention. Long before there were continuity commissions and Israel Experience programs, Jews were wrestling with what it means to be an American and a Jew.

In fact, ever since Jews first set foot in the New World more than three centuries ago, they have sought to piece together the different strands of their identity. Those efforts resulted in many paths — from full assimilation, even conversion, to maintaining and later reclaiming Jewish traditions and rituals.

A new exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia seeks to shed new light on the Jewish experience in America, illuminating the varied approaches to identity.

Jewish identity in America has never been “one thing,” says museum director Margo Bloom. “It depends on where you came from, who your grandparents were, whether you were Sephardi or Ashkenazi.”

Many people think that all Jews came to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, landed at Ellis Island, lived on the Lower East Side of New York and spoke Yiddish, says Bloom. Not many remember that Jews “lived in the South, fought in the Civil War, went West.”

Through the stories of individuals, and artifacts from their lives, the multitude of experiences are laid out in “Creating American Jews,” which will serve as the museum’s new permanent exhibit.

The museum, located in the historic section of Philadelphia just blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, is the country’s only museum dedicated primarily to American Jewish history.

While all immigrants to America forged new identities, for Jews it was the first time Jews had the freedom to choose how or even whether to remain Jewish.

As the introduction to the exhibit says: “In America, it was different. Everyone was a nomad, a traveler from somewhere else. The new land presented Jews with a dilemma: how to forge identities as `Americans’ and still remain Jews? Over time, the children and grandchildren of the early pioneers would discover that the openness of America posed endless possibilities challenging them to reinvent Jewish identity again and again.”

The exhibit divides three and a half centuries of Jewish life into categories, including “The New World,” “Pioneers,” “Immigrant Neighborhoods,” “Modern Communities” and “New Identities.”

The stories include that of Joseph Simon, who lived in Lancaster, Pa., in the mid-1700s. He carried a miniature Torah scroll and ark when his business took him places where no Jewish community existed.

The Civil War found Jews on both sides of the North-South divide. The exhibit shows a stark photograph of a Union soldier wearing his yarmulka. Another soldier, Myer Levy, wrote a letter to his parents from the battlefront near Deep Bottom, Va.

Some Jewish immigrants, like Charles Oilfield, who settled in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1865, achieved prominence through their business acumen. Oilfield, whose magnificent patent desk is displayed in the exhibit, created one of the largest mercantile empires in the Southwest.

The exhibit, though beautifully mounted, seems over-ambitious and confusing in its effort to be all-inclusive. It jumps, for example, from the mid-19th century to the 1960s too quickly without adequately preparing the visitor for the transition.

Still, the message that there were and still are many ways to be Jewish, rings clear. For some, Jewish life centered around the synagogue, while for others Jewish identity was expressed through battling anti-Semitism, memories of the Holocaust, identification with Israel, or political activism on behalf of Israel, Soviet Jewry or the civil rights and feminist movements.

In 1975, Karen Mittelman, then a teen-ager, wrote a letter to the authors of “The Jewish Catalogue,” thanking them for sparking a new light in her Jewish quest.

“Your book was for me a truly beautiful interpretation of Jewish laws and values,” Mittelman wrote to the editors of the book that epitomized the countercultural “hands-on” Judaism described in the catalog.

Mittelman, the curator of the Philadelphia exhibit, was surprised when one of the editors, Richard Siegel, unearthed her letter.

Though Mittelman says it is embarrassing for her to read that letter now, she remembers that reading “The Jewish Catalogue” was a “real turning point in my life.”

Just as she was “swept up in that re-envisioning of American Judaism,” Mittelman says, “the sense of invention and remaking Judaism is what’s at the heart of this show. In every generation, Jews had to reinvent their place in America.”

Mittelman says that the current communal emphasis on Jewish identity influenced the museum’s decision to create this exhibit and it also influenced the discussion surrounding its development.

The hardest part, she says, was finding the right medium to speak to visitors to the show. The decision to go with personal stories and artifacts, rather than a lot of explanatory narrative, provides a “sense of connectedness,” Bloom says.

“These are the stories of everyday lives,” she says.

“It makes people realize that if these people are part of American Jewish history, then I am, too.”

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