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Museum Musings

8.18.17: Interns' Favorite Objects, Part 1

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By Lila Currie, NMAJH Summer Intern

This summer, college and graduate students from across the country came to the Museum to gain valuable experience in a variety of departments. It’s safe to say each intern left their impression on the Museum in some way, and certain Museum objects left an impression on our interns! Below is Part 1 of the interns’ favorite objects, along with how and why they were moved by them…
Cleveland poster

Gabriel Weinstein, Intern for the Executive/CEO:

I am drawn to the “Many Peoples, One Language” poster on the third floor. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland and always enjoy learning about Cleveland history. A few of the schools listed on this poster still exist today. I grew up driving through the neighborhoods where several of these schools were located. Many of my grandparents’ friends lived near these schools and a few even attended some of the listed high schools. The poster is a reminder of how Cleveland has both changed and not changed over the past century.

Delaney Kerkhof, Academic Liaison/Special Projects Intern:

 My favorite object in the museum is Estée Lauder’s executive planner from 1974. It is currently flipped open to a week that includes important business meetings along with reminders to buy chicken for Seder. I still swear by owning a physical planner, so it was entertaining and inspiring to see Estée Lauder’s and witness how she was able to balance her personal and professional life in a time when women were emerging as business leaders.

Jessica Jaskot, Academic Liaison/Administrative Intern:

Freedom Riders binderMy favorite object in the Museum is the binder that contains the photos and names of the Jewish Freedom Riders on the 2nd floor. As a History teacher, I have taught students about the Freedom Riders in 1961 who challenged the Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which segregated interstate transportation facilities. Having taught this topic, I thought I knew a lot about these civil rights activists. I was amazed to learn that there were Jewish participants in the Freedom Rides! This object exposed me to a new perspective on history that I thought I knew well. It is a testament to the Museum and its ability to provide an engaging lens on American History.

Stephanie Vettese, Applebaum Family Intern for Curatorial Department:

My favorite object in the Museum is Albert Einstein’s pipe, which can be found on the 1st floor in the Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame. I think it’s amazing that the Museum has something of such personal value that belonged to a well-known individual such as Einstein himself. According to some Museum staff, when they received the pipe, they could still smell the scent of tobacco emanating from it! These funny stories and interesting facts about various objects within the Museum make me truly believe that history is still alive.

Wedding dressCarly Hossler, Marketing/Communications Intern:

My favorite object is the wedding dress made out of a parachute used during the Second World War, located on the Museum’s 3rd floor. I think it shows a not-so-dark side of World War Two. When you hear about World War Two, it’s mostly about the horrible things that happened. Seeing something that came from a horrible place turned into something beautiful is really meaningful.

Francesca Reznik, Curatorial Intern:
I liked the wedding dress made out of the parachute because I thought it was a really touching story and the quote that was included with the dress. The woman who wore the dress basically that if the parachute hadn’t saved his life, then they couldn’t have met and got married and it was just such a great sentiment.

Jamie Frederick, Curatorial Collections Intern:

My favorite object lately has been the dress made of the parachute from the Second World War, it’s got a pretty incredible story…

Lea Eisenstein, Curatorial Intern:

My favorite object is the ACT UP pin, which is the last artifact you see as you leave the 2nd floor gallery. I study the history of medicine and health as it relates to gender, and am particularly captivated by the history of the AIDS crisis. I find myself both intrigued and amazed by the LGBT community's capacity to rise up and "ACT UP" in the 1980s and 1990s to advocate for their own health in the face of government inactivity and public apathy. Although the AIDS epidemic affected (and continues to affect) LGBT folk of all religions and backgrounds, the pin is a reminder that the Jewish spirit of activism was in many ways central to queer activism and the formation of groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (i.e. ACT UP) and others.

 Sewing machine
Jasmine Bennett, Facility Rentals Intern:

My favorite object in the Museum is the Singer sewing machine on the 3rd floor. As a fashion student, seeing the differences between what they used back then and what we use now gives me a better perspective on how fashion has changed over the years.

Interested in interning at the Museum? Visit for more information.

Please note that some of the objects in our permanent collection rotate on and off view for conservation purposes. Therefore, some of the objects mentioned in this story may not be on view when you visit the Museum. You can always contact Visitor Services at 215.923.3811 x160 to find our whether a specific object will be on view during the time of your planned visit.

Images, top to bottom:
1) Poster, Americanization Committee and Board of Education, Cleveland, 1917. National Museum of American Jewish History, 2006.1.1128
2) “Jewish Freedom Riders” binder
3) Wedding gown made from a nylon parachute, worn by Belle Rabinowitz at her wedding to Lt. George Weisfeld, Beth Sholom Synagogue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 29, 1945. National Museum of American Jewish History, 2006.1.1128
4) Sewing machine of Ruben Mazer ca. 1905, Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana


7.24.17: Summers Come and Gone in the Borscht Belt

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By Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

Borscht Belt 1b

With the taste of summer in the air, I explored a part of the NMAJH core exhibit that displays artifacts from what has become an iconic, though largely bygone, phenomenon of American Jewish leisure: summers in the “Borscht Belt.” The assortment of trophies, keys, menus, and cards in this second floor case provide a glimpse of the summer experience for many middle and working class New York Jewish families throughout the twentieth century.

This piece of history was made in Sullivan and Ulster Counties in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, more colloquially known as the “Borscht Belt” or “Jewish Alps”. The area was a hub of large resort hotels and bungalow colonies to where Jewish families would escape the sweltering New York City summers, some for weekends, some for weeks on end.

How did a secluded region in Upstate New York come to be referred to by the Jewish daily newspaper, The Forward, as a “continuation of Hester Street?”

Borscht Belt 2The area was driving distance from New York City and already home to other resorts and vacation communities that were not open to Jewish patrons. In response, Jews began to buy properties and open their own hotels, serving kosher food and catering almost exclusively to Jews. Many of these locales had been around since the early 1900s (the first synagogue in the Catskills, in Spring Glen, NY, was built in 1917), though the heyday of the Borscht Belt was primarily post World War II.

Many of the artifacts in the NMAJH display come from Grossinger’s, one of the largest Borscht Belt resorts, which was founded by Asher Selig Grossinger in 1919. Other famous names included the Concord, the Nevele, and Kutsher’s.

For years, the Borscht Belt thrived as a place that allowed Jews to escape from the city summer and feel at home in a familiar social setting. Families enjoyed outdoor activities such as swimming and boating, and in the evenings saw comedy shows and musical performances. Women, most of whom were stay at home mothers, and their children would often spend much of the summer in the country, and their husbands would come up on weekends. The Grossinger’s dining room fit 1,000 people and was home to a vibrant social scene, with women playing mah-jongg with friends and young men and women hoping to find matches.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Borscht Belt began to face decline. As the accessibility of air travel increased and vacationing in the Catskills became less appealing to the next generation, many of whom had moved out of the city, the resorts lost business, and nearly all of them have closed. The abandoned structures, strikingly captured by photographer Marisa Scheinfeld in her 2016 book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland (available in the NMAJH Museum Store), are devoid of life but eerily depict the decades of joyous summers families spent in the Borscht Belt.
Borscht Belt 3


7.12.17: Engaging with History in ''1917''

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Does the United States have a responsibility to defend other nations? Is it patriotic to criticize the government? How would you respond to these questions?

One of the challenges faced by teachers, scholars, and cultural institutions today is how to present history in a way that audiences can identify with more broadly. NMAJH’s special exhibition, 1917: How One Year Changed the World, encourages visitors to make connections between the past and the present. The exhibition, which closes on July 16, features two interactive kiosks, each posing a question and inviting visitors to share their opinions on themes discussed in 1917.

So, how did visitors respond? Here’s a glimpse of a few of the 200+ reactions collected in the exhibit…




This question was top of mind in 1917. Although President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected under the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” the United States officially entered World War I shortly after Wilson’s January 1917 inauguration. In October of that year, the United States intervened in Russian affairs after the February Revolution.


Visitor opinions highlight the relevance of this topic today:

“The United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world. Since they have the ability to do it, they should do it.” – David, 12

“A nation’s purpose is to defend the rights and prosperity of their citizens, and…helping other nations is a waste of valuable resources.” – Abraham, 13

“As the leader of the free world, we have a responsibility to protect freedom everywhere…if we do not speak up, who will?” – Robert, 59

“Isolation makes us vulnerable. We all need friends in a dangerous world.” – Natalie, 77

“While we are not the world’s police, there is a time and place where defensive action on behalf of others is good and necessary.” – Steve, 25

“I believe the US has the right to defend those who can’t defend themselves…also, if we ever encounter war, we must do it out of love for another country not our domination.” – Jake, 16

“I am a citizen of the world. Humanity knows no boundaries.” – Lois, 60




To a “small, but vocal minority” in 1917, criticizing U.S. involvement in the war, especially in regards to the draft, was a manifestation of patriotism. While there may be agreement that criticism is healthy for democracy, the extent to which it was tolerated a century ago was very different from today. NMAJH’s exhibit features Emma Goldman, an activist who was arrested along with her partner, Alexander Berkman, for being an outspoken critic of the government.

Today, the idea of criticizing the government as a patriotic act is more widespread. Visitor respondents almost unanimously answered yes:

“Without dissent, there can be no discussion.” – Kelly, 37

“We have a responsibility to speak out when the government does something wrong. We can criticize a government’s actions while remaining loyal to the government itself.” –Robert, 59

“It is un-patriotic to sit back and let a government infringe upon your rights and those of your fellow cultures. Patriotism is the ability to criticize but still support your nation with love and respect.” – Sarah, 18

"To criticize is the only way to bring about change.” – Harrison, 15

“Criticism of the government by its citizenry is not only patriotic but necessary.” – Amanda, 40

“The ability to criticize a hallmark of American freedom and democracy. Respectful criticism is good.” – Marilyn, 71

The interactive element enriches the visitor experience in 1917: How One Year Changed the World. Be sure tovisit NMAJH before the exhibit closes on July 16 not only to learn, but to participate in the discourse. (Can’t visit? Share your responses to the above questions in the comment section below!)

Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern


6.23.17: Unpacking Memories

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By David Acosta

SuitcasesDuring a recent visit to the Museum to see its special exhibition 1917: How One Year Changed the World, I also decided to go through the core exhibition once again. It’s a place I enjoy visiting from time to time as I always discover something new.

This time I was on the third floor and as I turned the corner, I was struck by a pile of suitcases, which created in me a great sense of sadness. The suitcases are part of the exhibition about the great Jewish migration to the United States from other places throughout the world. My sadness at seeing them piled up one on top of the other stemmed from several reasons.

As an immigrant, the suitcases resonated with me as would other suitcases in the exhibition because they are in a sense tied to specific journeys one undertakes in a lifetime: vacations, family visits, and for some a permanent move to a new place. For my family coming to America in 1968 it was a permanent move, one that involved leaving behind all that was familiar to us: language, food, and customs, but most importantly family, which is so central to the identity of Colombians and in many ways defines how we view ourselves and how we move through the world. I remember how difficult those first years were and how we yearned to go home, to return to the familiar and to a large and very close knit extended family.

The other story is one that I revisit often and was told to me by a South African friend. Once as a child she was playing in a room and went to hide underneath the bed in her grandparents’ room (a place she was not allowed to play in) and how she found a suitcase which she dragged from under the bed and when she opened it she found that it was packed with what seemed to her all of the things one would need for a fast journey.

Alarmed at the thought that her grandparents who had lived with her and her parents all of her life were leaving, she ran to her mother crying. To soothe her, her mother reassured her that her grandparents weren’t leaving and she told her that everyone in the house had such a suitcase including her, and how the suitcases were ready just in case they had to take an unexpected trip. She then took her to the closet where she showed the little girl a suitcase packed just for her, which also included some books and toys. It was only years later as a young teenager that she mentioned it to a friend who also said her family had done the same.

Apparently this, she learned, was a common experience among Jews who had escaped the Holocaust and/or whose experience was one of continued movement for a place of safety and or for a place that one could call home, and so the pile of suitcases brought that sad story back to me and reminded me of my own sadness at leaving home and all that was familiar, although unlike me, (in the case of many Jews leaving Europe during the war) it meant the possibility of never seeing their families again, and many never would.

David Acosta is the Artistic Director at Casa de Duende, which is dedicated to presenting socially relevant art that addresses critical social issues and challenges both artists and communities to address through art and art-making, the causes and consequences of cultural, economic, and political realities in the context of advancing progres
sive social change.

6.2.17: Remembering a Great Philadelphia Artist

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I first heard the name “Marc Blitzstein” when I was a college student in the mid-1980s. I was spending a semester abroad in London, when a touring production of his musical The Cradle Will Rock came to town starring Patti LuPone and directed by John Houseman, who at the time I knew of only as the star of The Paper Chase.


As an emerging progressive, I was drawn to the show’s “power-to-the-people” themes and began to read up on Blitzstein and his work. That’s when I learned about the original production of Cradle and its notorious first performance in 1937. Produced by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (imagine the U.S. Government hiring theatre artists—now that’s progressive!), this production was directed by a 22-year-old Orson Welles and produced by—you guessed it—John Houseman. Reportedly because of its pro-union stance, the production was shut down on the eve of its first performance. The cast and production team were locked out of the theatre, and so they marched up Broadway in protest with several hundred audience members, took over an empty theatre and performed the show with only Blitzstein himself playing the score on piano.


June 16th marks the 80th anniversary of this event, one of the most remarkable in the history of American popular culture. But, with the exception of the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, in which Hank Azaria portrayed Blitzstein, this innovative and influential composer, a native Philadelphian, has faded into obscurity.


This month, though, Blitzstein will finally get the recognition he so richly deserves. On Monday, June 12, at 11:00 a.m., the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will unveil a historic marker recognizing Blitzstein near the site of his birthplace, 419 Pine Street. All are welcome to attend the dedication, which will include performances of Blitzstein’s work and speakers addressing his roots in Philadelphia, his artistic legacy and his work as an activist. NMAJH Director and CEO Ivy Barsky will emcee.


Then, come to NMAJH at 7:00 p.m. that evening for a reading from InterAct Theatre Company of the play It’s All True, which recounts the dramatic creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Purchase reading tickets here.


Blitzstein died in 1964 and was buried in Chelten Hills Cemetery in West Oak Lane. He has never been fully embraced or celebrated as one of Philadelphia’s great artists. That will change on June 12. Please join us.


-Michael Norris


5.24.17: Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition

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Shkoyach is a temporary projection to be displayed at the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition. In this project, a series of pairs of watercolor portraits is being projected at monumental scale within the Museum’s lobby. On a walk-through of NMAJH’s educational displays and collections in the main galleries, I collected some of the images on view of Jewish women engaged in social justice work across more than 100 years of American history. I then researched images of Black, Latina, and Asian women engaged in the same types of public actions, strikes, protests, and organizing meetings. The resulting watercolor portraits are intended to offer a personal and humanizing response to the extraordinary and ordinary heroism of these women. The title, Shkoyach, is a Yiddish expression often used to acknowledge and appreciate an act of bravery, wisdom, or chutzpah. It is a contraction of the more formal Hebrew “Yasher Koach”, and the literal translation is “May your strength be directed forward.” The expression, and this project, acknowledge both the importance of what has already been done, and the importance of using our strength for future action. Nine pairs of women are portrayed; I hope you will stop by the Museum to learn more about them.

Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition will celebrate 13 contemporary Philly-based artists whose work challenges the social and political status quo at 13 prominent locations around Old City, Society Hill, and along the Delaware River Waterfront from May 24 through July 4, 2017. Click here for more information.



5.12.17: Four Books to Read for Jewish American Heritage Month

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By Marisa Rafsky

My personal connection with the National Museum of American Jewish History began in 2011, long before I became a part-time employee. I was involved in a Jewish teen leadership program, which included a visit to the Museum.

During my first visit, I stepped foot in the Museum Store. As a book aficionado, I was blown away by their extensive collection of literature, which often draws attention to themes in the Museum’s exhibitions. NMAJH’s Museum Store has become my go-to place whenever I want to purchase a book with Jewish themes. In my opinion, the Museum Store is one of the best places in Philadelphia to look for books dedicated to Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish culture.

I’ve compiled a list of four book recommendations for my fellow book lovers:

Books blog

1) Golda by Elinor Burkett: If you’ve ever been curious to learn more about Israel’s first female Prime Minister, this book will give you a deep insight into her private and public life.

2) Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American edited by Josh Perelman: If you are a Jewish sports fan, this book is for you! This book is a complement to the Museum’s past exhibition of the same title. It contains vintage illustrations, personal letters, and an exploration of what it means to be Jewish in America.

3) Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt: If you have an interest in the law and Holocaust-era crimes, this book is a timely read. This book chronicles Lipstadt’s legal battle with a British Holocaust denier, which culminated in a historic victory for Lipstadt and preservers of Holocaust memory.

4) How to Raise a Jewish Dog by the Rabbis of Boca Raton Theological Seminary: This book is perfect for dog owners determined to turn their pet into a model Jewish kelev (dog). This humorous read will unlock the secrets to understanding your canine pal in a Jewish context.

Since May is Jewish American Heritage Month, consider celebrating by stopping by the Museum or browsing to check out the Museum Store’s literary collection!

Contributed by Marisa Rafsky, Former Marketing and Communications Intern at NMAJH