Controversy, Ignored

A day at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Jews relish in controversy and argument—any two Jews, for example, are famous for having three opinions. The newly opened National Museum of American Jewish History, however, must have missed the memo.

The state-of-the-art building—which opened two weeks ago—stands in the heart of Philadelphia, across the street from the Liberty Bell and many other bastions of American history. The museum displays an impressive plethora of Judaica and historical artifacts from every time period in American history, including Yiddish campaign memorabilia, Civil War uniforms, 17th century ritual objects and even a (hilarious) video of Gilda Radner from Saturday Night Live complaining about Russian jewelry—not Jewry.

But the museum lacks ethos and direction. Besides chronicling the Jewish experience in America, the exhibits follow no theme and do not discuss any of the controversy that has surrounded American Jewish issues—especially those that arose during this past century, when millions of Americans found a home and formed a community in the United States. Museum-goers leave without getting to know the development of Jewish-American discourse.

Certain events in American Jewish history have caused considerable discord in the Jewish world. American non-response during the Holocaust, the Jewish Defense League, the proliferation of Chabad and the growth of Reform Judaism are all divisive topics that provoke debate in our community.

The controversy behind these groups and events is part of what makes them important. The Jewish Defense League matters not only for what it did but because some people support Meir Kahane’s views while others see the JDL as an abomination.

Now, the museum should not have taken sides on any of these topics. Its exhibits, however, hardly even mention that the topics are at all contentious.  In avoiding these conflicts the museum does a great disservice to its patrons—regardless of how knowledgeable they are. It denies those “in the know” the chance to learn more about these arguments and implies to those less knowledgeable that these topics are not controversial. The museum should have introduced these topics while also discussing a few perspectives on them.

For example, instead of only defining Chabad, its exhibit should have mentioned the debate that surrounds the Hasidic sect: Some praise the organization for working to improve and empower the Jewish community while others think that its brand of kiruv, or religious outreach, is dangerously similar to intra-Jewish proselytizing.

The most redeeming aspect of the museum is in the one place where its curators present and invite debate. Right before they reach the exit, museum-goers enter a small circular room with questions projected onto the walls. The patrons respond to these questions — for instance, “Are Jews white?” — by writing their answers on small pieces of paper. These notes are then scanned and, like the questions, displayed around the room. By doing this the museum notes that there are controversies within the Jewish world and challenges its patrons to think about them. The museum’s curators ought to have used this concept throughout the exhibits, inviting visitors to discuss issues as they learned about them.

Aside from controversies—or lack thereof—the museum does have some worthwhile highlights. In addition to their extensive collection of artifacts, the exhibits discuss the role of Jews in significant American historical events, such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. One delightful feature was the Jewish-American wall of fame—which reminded me that Lou Reed, who sings “Walk on the Wild Side”—was Jewish.

Jewish visitors to Philadelphia should stop by the National Museum of American Jewish History, if only because the museum and its artifacts show our history as American Jews and our contributions to American society. But the museum does not, for the most part, provide those visitors with significant commentary on those contributions, and as such fails to delve into the development of the American Jewish conversation.

 Judah Gross is a senior at the University of Maryland and the editor in chief of the Maryland Mitzpeh–the school’s Jewish newspaper. He is the New Voices contributing editor and thinks the Maccabeats video is overrated.

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One Older Response to “Controversy, Ignored”

  1. Dave Boxthorn
    December 9, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    The bigger problem is the proliferation of Jewish museums. Most museums are necessarily past-focused (take a look at the photo above) when any community should look in the opposite direction.
    The Nazis planned to build a museum in Prague about the Jews when they finished them off. Given that knowledge the look of this museum is a bit eerie.
    Especially given the (non-violent) fall in the Jewish population of Philadelphia.
    Have a nice day.

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