Jews You Can Use
Adler, Jerry, Newsweek
Byline: Jerry Adler
There is no particular reason why the National Museum of American Jewish History should be located in Philadelphia, rather than, say, Brooklyn, except that it happened to have been founded there in 1976, by members of Congregation Mikveh Israel. Itself dating to 1740, Mikveh Israel was in the right place and time to become known as "the Synagogue of the American Revolution," the place where the Founding Fathers would have gone for services, if any of them had been Jewish. So five years ago, when the museum began planning a new $150 million building within sight of the Liberty Bell--opening on Nov. 26--it made sense to adopt "freedom" as the theme, rather than, say, "comedians" or "delicatessen." The design by celebrity architect James S. Polshek embraces its historic location with glass-walled galleries on each floor overlooking Independence Mall. The exhibits, according to museum president Michael Rosenzweig, are meant to "inspire all Americans to a greater appreciation of the contributions American Jews have been able to make by living in freedom." Unquestionably, America would be a very different country without Jews. No bagels. No Levi's. No--irony of ironies--"White Christmas." And absent the polio vaccine, we'd mostly all be dead anyway.
But the question Rosenzweig, a former law professor at the University of Michigan, had to ask himself is whether Americans really need more reminders of Jewish accomplishments. Nearly a century after Louis Brandeis became the first Jew on the Supreme Court, does it matter to anyone--except, of course, anti-Semites--how many others there have been? Or perhaps some Jews still care, but Rosenzweig points out that "if we are of interest only to Jews, we won't have succeeded in our mission." Part of that mission is to attract enough visitors to break even. Rosenzweig is certain that the American Jewish experience will resonate with other ethnic groups whose ancestors came to these shores in search of liberty and opportunity, even if the only Jews they've ever seen were the ones in Annie Hall.
So once you get past Irving Berlin's piano and Albert Einstein's pipe and the obligatory tribute to Sandy Koufax, the museum's exhibits are intended to provoke more thought and discussion than pride and bombast. With diligence, you might discover that Jews are represented in the ranks of American scientists, performing artists, and political figures, but, says, Rosenzweig, "we didn't view it as our role to be unquestioning cheerleaders for the American Jewish community. This is not about counting Nobel Prizes." (Or Jewish Miss Americas, which are easier to count. There was one.) Its very name, which puts "American" before "Jewish," emphasizes how much like their gentile countrymen Jews actually are--that they play baseball, not that they can pitch four no-hitters. …