Philadelphia: Only in America

National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall

On Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, the story of the nation’s founding may seem like an all-too-familiar tale.

The Cliff’s Notes version goes like this: Independence Hall is where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The Liberty Bell, cracks and all, became a symbol of the abolitionist movement and of efforts to attain freedom around the globe.

In the past decade, the historical events embodied by these icons have gained new context, as the Liberty Bell moved to its own interpretative center, and a museum dedicated to explaining the Constitution opened at the northern end of the mall.

Now several new attractions on or adjacent to the mall are adding their own chapters, some with unexpected twists, to the traditional understanding of American freedoms and how they came to be.

The National Museum of American Jewish History, a major facility affiliated with the Smithsonian, opened its dazzling new home in late 2010. The President’s House commemorative site, which marks the spot where President George Washington and John Adams, as well as nine enslaved Africans, once lived, before the nation’s capital shifted to Washington, D.C., also was recently unveiled to decidedly mixed reviews for its storytelling and scholarship.

Meanwhile, a 15-minute 3D film, Liberty 360, premiered last fall and is now offering regular showings in a theater across from Independence Hall. The movie, narrated by Benjamin Franklin, offers yet another perspective on the goings-on that led to the nation’s founding.

A series of staircases serve to link floors and historic periods in the museum.

By far, the most significant addition to the historic area is the $150 million NMAJH. The newly constructed 100,000 sq.-ft. facility by the same architect as Washington, D.C.’s, Newseum/Freedom Forum traces the journey of Jews in America, from the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in 1654 from Brazil to the present day.

The museum seeks to place the Jewish experience and struggles to find acceptance in the new world, in the context of what was happening in politics, business, science and pop culture in the U.S. and around the globe.

On each floor, vantage points offer sweeping views of Independence Mall, to further establish a visual link to the more famous monuments. Two sculptures –– a 19th century marble monument called “Religious Liberty” just outside the striking contemporary building and a 21st century LED “Beacon” that “flickers” at the top corner of the museum’s glass façade –– seek to underline the sense of the Jews’ quest for freedom being intertwined with the larger American story.

Inside, the museum spotlights prominent American Jews, as well as lesser known figures, such as 19th century pioneers Fanny and Julius Brooks, whose journey westward is brought to life with a covered wagon, dress up clothing and a virtual campfire.

The “Only in America” Gallery/Hall of Fame spotlights 18 “stars,” including Broadway composer Irving Berlin, polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk, cosmetics titan Estee Lauder, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and uber entertainer Barbra Streisand, with specially produced video testimonials paired with artifacts, such as Berlin’s upright piano and Streisand’s costumes from Yentl.

Typewriter used in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List; photo courtesy of museum

Elsewhere, short films focus on Yiddish theater, Hollywood moguls, the civil rights movement and the creation of the state of Israel.

The museum follows a timeline, beginning on the fourth floor with the Colonial period, and winding its way down to the current era on the second floor.

In one section, you can re-live the immigration experience by tapping a touch screen with various identification documents and trying to answer questions posed to new arrivals by federal officials. In another area, old-fashioned school desks represent tenement life, and a black-and-white video footage, coupled with purple lights, conjure up a fancy dress Jewish Heritage Ball from 1871.

For me, exhibits spanning the latter half of the 20th century on Jews’ shift from cities to suburbs, the summer camp phenomenon, the bar mitzvah tradition, the Borscht Belt and varying points of view of Jewish life as interpreted by Seinfeld, All in the Family, comedian Sarah Silverman and others seem especially relevant.

In the Contemporary Issues Forum, you can weigh in with your take on various hot-button questions, such as, “Should religion play a role in American politics?,” by sharing your views on Post It-style notes, which are then scanned and aired on screens.

Finally, “It’s Your Story” offers the opportunity to film a short vignette about your ancestors, family traditions and other related topics; these screen on a loop and then are archived.

It’s your chance to add your own chapter to the American story.