The National Museum of American Jewish History Philadelphia

The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), located on Independence Mall at 55 N. 5th Street, was established in 1976. This historic location is shared with the Congregation of the Mikveh Israel, known as the Synagogue of the American Revolution, one of the first organized Jewish congregations in the U.S., which opened on July 4, 1976. The largest of its kind, the Museum is dedicated to collecting and preserving the artifacts and information on the history, culture, and the social and economic evolution of Judaism in America. Focusing on their interrelationship with other ethnic groups in America and their valuable contributions to our society, the NMAJH portrays a fascinating 300-year history of the Jewish people.

Of the thousands of people from across the U.S. and other countries who visit the Museum each year, at least one-third are not Jewish. The Museum does not just present Jewish history; in fact, many ethnic groups are represented in its permanent and temporary collections and exhibits. Many programs are co-sponsored by organizations such as the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, the People’s Light and Theatre Company, and University of the Arts.

The exhibit Forshpeis: A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana opened in June 2006. Forshpeis, Yiddish for appetizer, features much of the food and preparation that originated in Eastern Europe and is now prepared and enjoyed here in the U.S., on holidays and celebrations, and in the many delicatessens around the country. From corned beef, Kosher pickles, and salami to chopped liver, imported herring, and Jewish rye, the collection is filled with interesting recipes and traditions of Jewish life. Over 10,000 artifacts from the 18th century to the present day were gathered over a period of some 25 years for the Schweitzer collection. When Forshpeis closes, these objects will be displayed in future temporary exhibitions, and will be included as a permanent, main attraction in the new NMAJH.

Previous exhibits at the Museum have included the art of Inez Storer, Bernard Mendoza’s documentary of Orthodox Jewish communities in the U.S., and the photographs and interviews by Harvey Finkle of Jewish immigrants who still reside in South Philadelphia. Other special collections and presentations have included The Road to Maus, by Art Spiegelman, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the personal account of his parents’ experience in the Holocaust, and the 2006 President’s Birthday event honoring George Washington. This exhibit featured Washington’s letter written to the Mikveh Israel Congregation affirming religious freedom, and special tribute to another of our nation’s leaders, Benjamin Franklin, for his support of all religious denominations. The Museum has also sponsored collections of photographs by Don Camp and Laurence Salzman, highlighting the sharing of personal bonds between African Americans and Jews, and the Diana Forman “Bible lady” collection of 800 handmade dolls.

In addition to displays of silver, ceremonial items, family heirlooms, sculpture, prints, ancient scrolls, documents, and crafts, the NMAJH features a different artifact each month taken from the catalogue and registry of Jewish America. These items, many of which are from Schweitzer’s private collection, have included a seltzer bottle, from around 1910 — 1940, clocks, signs, political buttons, and cartoons. Individuals and organizations frequently donate items to the Museum, such as an 1821 Tzitzit, a ritual garment used in healing babies, an idea that originated in Poland and migrated to America, a 1938 trading card illustrating Nazi Storm Troopers against the Jews in Austria, a Havdahlah spice tower, and a Shohet knife used for slaughtering sheep. In addition to fascinating exhibits, collections, educational programs, and interactive resources, the Museum holds an annual “Being Jewish at Christmas,” a family event that features music, stories, dance, and art. Free refreshments are served, as visitors enjoy the menorah lighting and Hanukkah songs, and children watch the magic and juggling shows, and receive free dreidels, or spinning tops.

The new $100 million NMAJH is designed by James S. Polshek, whose projects have included architecture at the Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Clinton Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Located at 5th and Market Streets, one block from its current location, the Museum is expected to open in 2009. Its glass exterior represents the concepts of freedom, opportunity, and justice that were once denied to the Jewish people, but are now open to all. It is estimated that over 250,000 people will visit the NMAJH in Philadelphia each year.

Hours: Monday — Thursday, 10:00 a.m. — 5:00 p.m., Friday, 10:00 a.m. — 3:00 p.m., Sunday, 12 Noon — 5:00 p.m. Closed on Saturdays, Thanksgiving Day, and major Jewish holidays. Ph: 215-923-3811

Admission: $4.00 — Adults, $3.00 — seniors, children, and students.

(Wheelchair accessible, strollers permitted. Museum shop on premises.)

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