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Naamani Lecture Series Highlights New Jewish Museum in Philadelphia

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

This year’s Israel T. Naamani Memorial Lecture Series was held as part of the Professor Louis Gottschalk Lecture Series at the University of Louisville on Wednesday, March 30. Josh Perelman, Ph.D., Deputy Director for Exhibits, Programs and Collections at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia, provided a fascinating overview of the striking new building that overlooks Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell in the heart of historic Philadelphia. The grand opening was held in November 2010.

Perelman, who has more than 15 years experience working with Jewish organizations and 10 years working in museums, served as chief curator of the museum’s new core exhibition. His thorough description of the NMAJH’s physical structure was augmented with a slide presentation that conveyed the overall spirit of the place as well. We might all want to pack our bags and visit at our first opportunity.

The 100,000 square foot museum includes three-and-one-half floors of exhibit space that “explore the promises and challenges of American liberty through the lens of the American Jewish experience over the past 350 years.” (A fifth floor houses offices and research space in addition to a commercial area that can be reserved for meetings, weddings, etc.)  “Our goal for this museum,” Perelman said, “is to tell stories and communicate information in a tone that engages and inspires people.”  He feels visitors will agree their mission has been achieved.

The various exhibits explore the lives and experiences of Jews coming to America and provide insights into the choices and challenges they faced and overcame to shape, (and be shaped by) their new homeland. The core exhibit covers three eras: Foundations of Freedom (1654-1880) shows how early Jews struggled to find their footing and preserve their faith in a country lacking the Jewish institutions and services they required; Dreams of Freedom (1880-1945) centers on the influx of millions of immigrants to this country and how they helped shape their communities and distinguished themselves through the arts, politics and religious expression; and Choices and Challenges of Freedom (1945-today) includes the creation of the state of Israel, postwar culture, the role of Jews in civil rights, in business, in culture and in counterculture.

Exhibits tell the story using a variety of tools such as historical objects, cutting-edge interactive technology and by creating period environments such as the interior of a 1950s suburban kitchen in Levittown, New York circa 1950. A wide range of cutting-edge media experiences include It’s Your Story, a video booth that records and plays back snippets of visitors’ responses to what they’ve seen and Dreams of Freedom, a 40′ wide media sculpture that projects stories of immigrants onto sheets of curled paper. Exhibits are family-friendly and provide hands-on activities for all ages.

On the museum’s first floor, visitors encounter the Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame, which highlights 18 Jewish Americans (some well-known and some fairly obscure) who were chosen to be honored by popular vote. Among them are such celebrated women as Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir, Estee Lauder and Barbra Streisand (Streisand lent the museum a costume, script and storyboards from her film Yentl) as well as men like Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Albert Einstein, Mordecai Kaplan, Sandy Koufax, Isaac Mayer Wise and Louisvillian Louis Brandeis.

The museum has a more contemporary local connection as well. Cobi Weissbach, son of Sharon and Lee Shai Weissbach, is the associate director of development and Shira Goldstein, daughter of Alane and the late Joel Goldstein, is on the curatorial staff.

More information about the National Museum of American Jewish History is available at www.nmajh.org.

The Naamani Memorial Lecture Series is named in memory of Professor Israel Naamani, a respected and beloved member of the University of Louisville’s Political Science Department. The lectureship is supported by the Jewish Community of Louisville and held in conjunction with the university’s Professor Louis Gottschalk Lecture Series.

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