New Jewish History Museum Opens Doors To All People

A new museum seeks to bring to life the 350 year history of American Jews. Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, joins host Michel Martin to talk about the institution's mission and methods for engaging visitors of all faiths in the story of Jewish people in this country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of religion and spirituality and how they affect our daily lives. Today, we take a look at how a new museum hopes to tell the story of the Jewish people in America. The National Museum of American Jewish History celebrated its opening in Philadelphia with a grand gala last weekend, featuring Bette Midler, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbara Streisand and Vice President Joe Biden, among others.

The museum will open to the public on November 26th. Joining us to tell us more about it is Michael Rosenzweig. He is the president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and he's with us from Philadelphia. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL ROSENZWEIG (President and CEO, National Museum of American Jewish History): Thank you, Michel, pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You know, the museum says that it's the only one of its kind and we of course searched and searched, because I thought to myself, that can't be right. There's got to be another museum of American Jewish History somewhere. Do you know what I mean? Are you puzzled by the fact that this is the first?

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: It is a little puzzling. And the reason it's surprising is that it's a very important story. It's important generally and it's particularly important in the context of the thousands of years of Jewish history. And it's strange that there was not before this museum any museum telling the story.

MARTIN: What purpose do you think the museum serves? Does it affirm the contributions of people of the Jewish faith? What do you think its main purpose will be?

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: One of the purposes of the museum is to connect Jews more closely with their heritage. More universally, though, Michel, the story we tell is a story about freedom. It's a story about what can be achieved for oneself, for the country, really for the world, given the blessings of freedom. And in that respect it's also quite universally the story of the immigrant ethnic experience in this country.

MARTIN: The museum, how can we put this? It isn't all sweetness and light, I assume.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: That's correct. You know, we resisted the temptation to make this a museum about cheerleading. This is not about counting Nobel Prizes, it's not about unvarnished adulation. This is the whole story, bumps and all. So we tell the story of anti-Semitism. We tell the story of discrimination, of exclusion from clubs and universities. We also talk about Jewish criminals. You know, when we get to the present, I have to say that it is a pretty glorious chapter. You know, we're talking about an era in which American Jews enjoy a really remarkable degree of freedom. But as you say, it wasn't always so.

MARTIN: How do you think non-Jews will relate to this experience, this museum?

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: I will tell you candidly that if this museum is of interest only or mainly to Jews, we will have failed. We believe that the museum should be of great interest to all Americans. And we think that for a couple of different reasons. First, quite honestly, the story of American Jews is intrinsically an interesting story. But beyond that, the story we tell is not uniquely an American Jewish story. It really is a story of what happens in freedom to immigrant ethnic groups, how they can flourish, how they can achieve, how they experience that freedom. And ultimately how they are able to grapple with the tension of living in freedom while at the same time trying to preserve their heritage and their traditions.

MARTIN: We do live in a time when - and this happens periodically in our history, when some people get a little annoyed that people are focusing on their heritage and they say that they feel it's divisive. And I just wondered if, has that - did that come up at all in the discussions around building this institution and how you how you answer that.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: I think it's a very thoughtful point and I think there is a need to balance. There is such a thing as being American. And yet we all know as we say that that we're made up of multiple ethnic groups and we have a situation in which most Americans have assimilated, want to assimilate, want to become fully American. Yet at the same time they have some very valuable, deep, wonderful traditions absolutely worth preserving. And I think the challenge is to preserve what's good and valuable about those traditions without moving into the arena of divisiveness.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're hearing about the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It opens to the public next week. We're speaking with the president and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig. Can you just tell us about some of the things that we'll see if we visit?

Mr. ROZENZWEIG: We have over 30 original films that were created for the exhibition. We have 13 interactive displays. In general, our approach was to reach out, grab the attention of the visitor and maintain the visitor's attention. So a few examples of that. We have on the first floor a really wonderful gallery that we call the Only in America Gallery Hall of Fame, in which we do feature 18 particularly prominent, remarkable Jewish Americans.

These are people like Louis Brandeis and Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein and Jonas Salk and Albert Einstein. People who had truly remarkable achievements. Also some very exciting artifacts in that exhibit. We have Irving Berlin's piano. We have the very first film camera that Steven Spielberg ever used. Albert Einstein's pipe. Vials in which Jonas Salk tested formulations of the polio vaccine.

So Only in America Hall of Fame, I think, is one very exciting thing. And I mentioned earlier that we worked hard to bring the exhibition right up until the present day. We have something called the Contemporary Issues Forum. And in that space, when the visitor enters, projected on the wall are four very thought-provoking questions. Should the government be involved in decisions about the location of religious facilities? Or is intermarriage a threat to religion's survival?

And what we invite visitors to do in the Contemporary Issues Forum is to post their answers on Post-It notes, very low tech. But at the same time, those answers are scanned into a computer database and are projected on the same wall so that if a visitor is in that gallery, the visitor is in real time dialogue with others who are there at the same time. And most interestingly to us, they can also be accessed online. So when the visitor goes home, wonders a few days later about what people are saying with respect to one of these questions or another, that can be accessed online.

MARTIN: Michael Rosenzweig is the president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It opens to the public on November 26th. And he was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: Thank you, Michel, pleasure to be with you.

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