Historic City, Contemporary Buzz


Philadelphia may be one of the nation’s oldest cities, but right now it’s basking in the glow of novelty.

In the historic heart of the city, just a few blocks from Congregation Mikveh Israel — the city’s oldest Jewish synagogue — the National Museum of American Jewish History unveiled its new building in November. It has been buzzing with locals and tourists alike ever since.

Just across Market Street, next to the Liberty Bell, an outdoor memorial that recently opened contains the excavated ruins of George Washington’s original Philadelphia White House. Add to that a blockbuster Chagall exhibition, Bloomsday with James Joyce’s original manuscript and Tchaikovsky with fireworks, and Philadelphia might just be the hottest getaway this spring.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is, of course, the biggest draw of all among the newest tourist sites both for fans of the city’s abundant cultural offerings and for Jews of all persuasions. “Only in America,” proclaim bold letters along the side of this shimmering, silvery edifice — a welcome contemporary note among downtown Philly’s stately brick structures.

Inside, a crowd of diverse visitors is immersed in five centuries of American Jewry, ranging from the earliest Sephardic settlers — many of whom ended up here in Philadelphia — through the hopeful Colonial and Revolutionary eras, Civil War, the great 19th-century of immigration and the triumphs of modern Jewish integration, which include Reform culture, summer camps, the women’s movement and Hollywood.

Many of the original artifacts and excellent reproductions are fascinating: Jewish merchants’ documents from the 1600s, turn-of-the-20th-century Russian-Jewish passports, Yiddish labor-strike posters. But even more compelling is the way the museum’s use of sophisticated multimedia engages visitors at every turn, providing an experience that is not only visual but also aural and participatory. Children will find eye-level questions for them to think about and kids’ books to flip through along the way; rooms at the end invite anyone to post answers to provocative, contemporary Jewish questions like, “Are Jews white?”

There’s a kosher café with hummus salads and black-and-white cookies for those seeking a nosh, but an even bigger lure is the museum store. From books of humor to silver jewelry to a vast array of mezuzot and menorahs, this is one of the best-curated museum stores around.

Leaving the museum, sights along the well-preserved streets of the Society Hill neighborhood take on a new context. Street names like Hays and Gratz ring with recognition from the museum walls, while the weathered, dignified graves in the historic Mikveh Israel Cemetery on Spruce Street speak to the city’s long Jewish presence.

A Jewish experience across the pond is on display nearby at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the blockbuster “Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle” runs through July 10. Typical of the new, thoughtful tendency in exhibitions, “Chagall and His Circle” is built around a theme rather than a general catalogue of one artist’s work.

With Chagall as the focal point, the show explores the heady artistic scene of Paris during the early 20th century, when bohemian quarters like Montparnasse attracted a lively and adventurous mix of French artists and adventurous émigrés of various origins. Many of them, like the Belorussian Chagall, were Jewish: Jacques Lipschitz, Chaim Soutine, Amadeo Modigliani. These were formative years for both Chagall — who would return to Russia during the war, only to return to Paris with new perspective — and for his colleagues, as the more than 70 paintings, sculptures and works on paper make clear.

If you hit the museum on a Friday, you can take advantage of the June weather and chase your art with a cocktail on the museum’s spectacular terrace. “Martinis on the Portico,” from 5 p.m. every Friday, is the summer edition of the PMA’s Friday happy-hour tradition, offering stunning views over the Philadelphia skyline and informal gallery tours throughout the evening.

These are the final weekends to catch two buzzed-about fashion exhibits at the PMA. “Roberto Capucci: Art into Fashion,” which closes June 5, is a retrospective of the influential Italian fashion designer who is known for his sculptural silhouettes. And “The Peacock Male: Exuberance and Extremes in Masculine Dress” offers proof — if you needed it — that so-called metrosexuality is nothing new. One stroll through the flamboyant wigs, waistcoats and velvet smoking-gowns that men have sported over the last 300 years, and you’ll be plenty convinced.

This weekend is also a last chance to catch the Philadelphia Orchestra as it winds down its regular season, with Charles Dutoit conducting Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust” at the downtown Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts (where, by the way, you can drop into the plaza on any Friday for a free noontime piano recital). The storied orchestra is carrying on despite well-publicized financial problems.

Beginning in June, the orchestra moves to its longtime summer home at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park, where it will offer several crowd-pleasing June programs: Orff’s “Carmina Burana” (on a program with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony), a Tchaikovsky spectacular with fireworks on the lawn, and “Down the Abbey Road,” a Beatles celebration with Joan Osborne and other guests.

And finally, if you can’t make it to Dublin, there may be no better place to celebrate Bloomsday than Philadelphia. That’s because James Joyce’s original manuscript of “Ulysses” — the seminal novel set on June 16, 1904, which Bloomsday commemorates — is on display at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, which will host a Bloomsday celebration to please the most ardent fans of Leopold Bloom.

The Rosenbach brothers’ collection of rare books, manuscripts and other literary esoterica forms the core of this quirky museum, making it an ideal place to commune with other Joyce enthusiasts on Bloomsday — complete with readings of the work by local luminaries (the mayor himself will drop by) and related Irish literary events.

Traveler’s Resources:
National Museum of American Jewish History:
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts:
Mann Center for the Performing Arts:
Philadelphia Museum of Art:
Rosenbach Museum: www.rosenbach.org