Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland’s long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the museum illuminates Jewish history both local and worldwide, setting these traditions and achievements against the backdrop of U.S. and world events. Within its walls, one meets a host of colorful characters whose personal stories are brought to life in film, interactive activities and exhibits of precious artifacts.
Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the Beachwood, Ohio museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.
“Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” says Maltz who, with his wife Tamar, was the visionary behind the museum. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and this country.
Although it illuminates large themes, the Maltz Museum is compact. The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot minimalist building, which is faced in luminous Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, exhibits throughout the meandering rooms and alcoves engage and inform museum-goers.
The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum’s major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.
Superimposed on these, a multilevel timeline shows the history of the Jews from Abraham onward, placing it in the context of world civilizations and historical events.
In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone — literally — for the visitor’s tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actor Peter Strauss narrates this film, which provides an overview of the museum.
Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. They hold tightly to their children, bundles and valises. Anxiety, loneliness and hope are etched on their faces. This tableau ushers one into “They’ve Arrived!” — the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland’s first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.
Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten “ethical will” addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.
To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.
“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works, and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.
At the end of the street, “To Serve” focuses on the military experience of Jewish servicemen and women from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq.
A film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.
Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored — in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero’s creation by local artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.
The final area, “From Generation to Generation,” showcases Jewish achievements from 1950 to the present in science, medicine, business, industry, literature and the arts. Alongside photos of contemporary Jewish landmarks, filmed interviews address the question on of what it means to be a Jew today.
Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple’s collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.
While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum’s executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.
The changing exhibition space should be a magnet for repeat visits. The first of these temporary exhibits is “The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” which opens Nov. 12.
Just as he hopes people from other ethnic backgrounds will see some of their own stories reflected in the museum, Maltz also hopes they will want to use its open space to mount exhibits showcasing their own heritage.
Special events and ongoing activities will also bring people to the museum, says Zawatsky, who was formerly director of education at the Jewish Museum in New York. She and her staff have created a full schedule of activities for museum-goers of all ages.
“It’s wonderful to have this in our own backyard,” says Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. “This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children.”
Learn more about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage at www.MaltzJewishMuseum.org.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.