By MARC GRONICH
ALBANY–The National Museum of American Jewish History, in the heart of the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, stands directly across from the Liberty Bell, a block south of the National Constitution Center and one block north of the birthplace of American liberty, Independence Hall. The 100,000 square-foot, five-story building was opened on November 26, 2010, at a cost of $150 million, including endowments.
“The Museum’s inspiring new home is a powerful testament to what all free people can accomplish, for themselves and society at large,” said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum’s president and chief executive officer. “Since many other immigrant ethnic groups that came to this country faced challenges similar to those confronted by Jews, the museum will be a place for all Americans to explore.”
I recently toured the glass and terra cotta framed museum (left) hoping to find local connections. Among the many events and stories related and explained through more than 1,000 artifacts, films, and state-of-the-art interactive technology, is the Reform Movement, which had its genesis in Albany in 1846; the anti-Semitic actions in Saratoga Springs in 1877; President Washington’s and Lincoln’s friendships with the Jews; Grant’s hatred for Jews and the split among New York Jews regarding slavery.
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (left), the man credited with starting the Reform Movement in the United States during the mid-1800s was featured prominently, but except for one brief mention, his connection to Albany was ignored.
In October 1846, Wise was appointed rabbi of Congregation Beth-El (House of God), which was located in downtown Albany on Herkimer Street. Wise soon began initiating reforms to the prayer service, including family pews, a mixed choir, confirmation (instead of a bar mitzvah) and, for the first time in an American Jewish congregation, counting women as part of the minyan or religious quorum.
The idea of mixed seating has been highlighted at the museum with this mention: “Synagogues traditionally separated men and women during prayer, with women sitting in balconies or behind a partition called a mechitzah. Controversy broke out when some mid-19th century synagogues introduced “family pews” to allow men and women to worship together, the norm in most American churches. Supporters believed family seating represented religious modernization and positive values like family togetherness. Opponents considered it a sign of assimilation, Christianization and even promiscuity.”
The changes advocated by Wise resulted in some disapproval. In 1850, on the morning of the beginning of Rosh Hashanah that evening, Wise was dismissed at a rump meeting of the congregation’s board of directors. The next day havoc broke out, including a fistfight between Wise and the congregation’s president which caused a split in the Albany community. The fight evolved between the supporters and detractors of Wise, which rolled out into the street and the Albany police were called to break up the brawl. That ended services for the day. Soon after, a group broke away from Beth El and, with Rabbi Wise, established a new Reform temple called Anshe Emeth—“men of truth.” That congregation eventually became Temple Beth Emeth, now located on Academy Road.
This brief history is not presented in the annals of the Philadelphia-based Jewish museum. There is a brief reference in a 40-minute introductory film shown in the lobby that states Wise had a fight and moved to Cincinnati, not mentioning Albany, the congregation, or why the fight broke out.
“We have an exhibit on the birth of the Reform Movement, and, of course, he (Wise) is mentioned prominently throughout, including text that references his congregation in Albany,” Jay Nachman, a museum spokesman said.
The specific text Nachman was referencing was: “Isaac Mayer Wise emigrated from Bohemia in 1846 and took the pulpit at Albany’s Congregation Beth El (House of God.) He later served as the rabbi of Cincinnati’s Congregation B’nai Yeshurun (Sons of Righteousness) …”
In a $150 million museum this is the only reference to the Albany congregation where the Reform Movement began. I pointed out the omission to the museum staff. Nachman replied, “I will mention this to curatorial. You are not the first person to have mentioned the exhibition does not mention a specific place, individual or moment. But, when telling the story of 350 years of American Jewish life, you just can’t get everything in.”
Probably the best explanation I heard as to why Albany was not featured more prominently came from my tour guide.
“When you look at the overall life of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, what is the most salient is that he started a new movement and went to Cincinnati and was successful,” Beth Goldman said. “The Reform story is really in Cincinnati.”
Asser Levy, born in Vilna, Lithuania, arrived on the shores of this country in September 1654, with several other Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish settlers following their escape from the onslaught of the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil. He and this group were the first Jewish settlers of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (New York City) on Manhattan Island, where much of Levy’s life was spent. Levy battled with Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the colony, over the right to serve in the armed forces.
The museum related this is as follows: “The arrival of Jewish settlers alarmed New Amsterdam’s governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who considered them “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” A strict Calvinist, Stuyvesant had little desire for diversity. He persecuted the Quaker colonists and warned his superiors that giving Jews liberty would mean “we cannot refuse the Lutherans and the papists.” But the Dutch West India Company, the colony’s administrators, believed that Jews’ mercantile skills and international trade connections would benefit the colony. It permitted them to stay but forbade Jews from worshipping publicly, owning real estate, serving in the militia, holding office, opening shops or obtaining state relief.”
The part omitted from the museum’s take on this is that in 1660, Levy went north to Fort Orange, now known as Albany. Levy was the first Jew to own a house in North America. As early as 1661, Levy purchased real estate in Fort Orange becoming one of the earliest Jewish owners of real estate in this region. Levy is credited for encouraging other Jews to travel to Albany to begin a minyan to help others who needed to worship.
Although Levy is mentioned several times in the museum, again, the facts about Levy’s connection to Albany are omitted from the museum’s history of great Jewish leaders.
One point glossed over and mentioned briefly on the tour was that President Abraham Lincoln appointed the first Jewish chaplain, and had to overturn an Act of Congress to do so.
Lincoln appointed the first Jewish chaplain (left, Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia’s Congegation Rodeph Shalom, the first Jewish chaplain) during the Civil War overturning a measure adopted by Congress in July 1861, which stated in part that “a regularly ordained minister must be of some Christian denomination.”
Lincoln’s proposed amendments to the chaplaincy law and his wish for a Jewish chaplain came on July 17, 1862. The amendment read in part, “…the appointment of brigade chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religions.”
But the most dramatic local part of the tour was when an incident of anti-Semitism launched Saratoga Springs into the national spotlight. In June 1877, Joseph Seligman (left), a banker, a nouveau riche German Jew, considered to be a robber baron and one of the wealthiest men in the nation, travelled to Saratoga Springs with his staff, family and furnishings in tow, (as he had done for the past decade), to stay at the posh 834-room Grand Union Hotel, which was located on Broadway across the street from Congress Park.
Saratoga Springs was a place where Jews and Gentiles would vacation, according to tour guide Goldman. The Spa City was a well-regarded resort for upper class New Yorkers, and the Grand Union Hotel (left) itself was the best available.
Upon arriving at the hotel Judge Henry Hilton, the hotel manager, denied entry to Seligman and his family because they were “the wrong kind of Jews.” Sephardic Jews were acceptable but not the dirty greedy German Jews, according to media reports from the time. This created a nationwide controversy. It is said to be the first anti-Semitic incident of its kind in the United States to achieve widespread publicity.
A part of the visit that I found fascinating was how many times the rebbe—Rabbi Menachaem Mendel Schneerson (left)—was mentioned and how his story was portrayed.
As you enter the main lobby, there is a stand-alone exhibit which contains his picture. The caption under his picture reads, “Guilded by the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad-Lubavitch became the best-known Chasidic movement in the world. Schneerson rebuilt Chabad after the devastation of the Holocaust and expanded it by training thousands of rabbis and their wives to be emissaries around the globe, where they reach out to all Jews and promote Jewish tradition.”
On the fourth floor there is a sign displaying 25 great Jewish leaders, including Schneerson who is pictured next to Rabbi Sally Preisand (left), America’s first ordained female rabbi. Initially, I thought, not a great pairing, but then I reflected that the museum probably wanted to show the Jewish religion from one end of the spectrum to the other.
The museum setup seems to be a bit convoluted but each floor has a distinction of its own.
Jonas Salk’s serum to cure polio (left, vials from the first vaccine test in 1952) is on display in the main entrance and a baseball glove used by Brooklyn Dodger great Sandy Koufax, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Entertainers, sports stars and Jewish cultural happenings are all featured throughout the museum.
The museum officials stayed away from highlighting and bragging about all the Jewish Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners in literature, science, math and economics.
Located on the first floor of the museum, the Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame exhibits original film productions, artifacts and an interactive database. The films highlight the lives and achievements of the 18 honorees, chosen through an online poll, and are projected on two large curved glass surfaces. The 18 individuals showcased are Irving Berlin (left, in 1948, playing the piano on display at the museum), Leonard Bernstein, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Mordecai Kaplan, Sandy Koufax, Estée Lauder, Emma Lazarus, Isaac Leeser, Golda Meir, Jonas Salk, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rose Schneiderman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Henrietta Szold and Isaac Mayer Wise.
Among the artifacts on display are:
The museum displays are accommodating for the hard of hearing with each film having subtitles at eye level for wheel-chair bound patrons and the staff is accessible and helpful. The place is wheelchair accessible.
The museum cafeteria is kosher and dairy. It mainly serves cold food such as salads, bagel with butter or cream cheese, pretzels and beverages such as juice and soda. There is no borscht on the menu but there is a museum display featuring the Borscht Belt and focusing on the Grossinger Hotel.
If you go to the museum to see exhibits about the general flavor of Judaism over the past 350 years, you will enjoy what you see. But if you are looking for details about significant historical events in Albany you will likely be disappointed. When you go to the museum, bring a comfortable pair of shoes, be prepared with a small flashlight and take your time, probably five to six hours to soak up all that the facility has to offer.