National Museum of American Jewish History – An Ethnographic Experience Aptly in Philadelphia – Its Your Story

Posted on November 23, 2010


As defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures. Having just visited the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), I experienced what it felt like to live through milestones of American Jewish history. In addition, there were exhibits where I was provided the means to briefly express my personal story. The experience resulted in a feeling of humility and deep pride in being American. Physically, the museum is truly a magnificent structure. Even more compelling is what one finds contained within the walls of the awe-inspiring architectural wonder.

Upon entering the museum, visitors go on a chronological journey through the American Jewish experience. Insight is experienced in several ways ranging from films surrounding the visitor with real event footage, interactive activities, preserved documents, and a myriad of thought provoking exhibits. One feels as though he or she is going “Back to the Future,” which seems appropriate given Steven Spielberg’s contribution to Jewish American history. These experiences become a real life American history lesson where one discovers, learns, and often experiences “aha” moments. It becomes evident that Jewish American history is the focus with the American element never lost or diluted in any way.The museum successfully dedicates itself to preserving accurately American Jewish history. Visitors take away that Americans strive to reach the American dream and that Jews have embraced this mindset through education and hard work. Thus, reaching for the American Dream is paramount in contributing to the achievements of Jews in America.

The museum does not spoon feed conclusions to visitors. Instead, facts and experiences are presented empowering visitors to synthesize the information in order to reach their own conclusions. In a day and age where propaganda and revisionism (i.e. denial of Holocaust) is spread by hate groups, the museum accurately preserves and documents American Jewish history through the lens of the American Jewish experience. Again, this is accomplished ethnographically through the experiences of real people. Visitors of the museum become participants regardless of race, creed or color.

Albeit, the location of the museum, Philadelphia, has spurred some conversation. The venue of Philadelphia is correct and relevant for a number of reasons. With Philadelphia being the birth place of America, many tourists visit historical sites in the city. The museum provides tourists with the opportunity to better understand the history of Jews in America. There is no denying that Jews are a key part of the American fabric with a story that resonates and relates to Irish, Italian, Asian, African and Hispanic Americans. Given that political culture took shape only hundreds of yards away (i.e. Independence Mall), and that there is solely one symbol of American freedom, the Liberty Bell, the museum has found the right home in Philadelphia. There is no better place to connect 350 years of American Jewish history than Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and birth place of democracy.

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