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Museum Musings

11.16.17: Researching Your Roots

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Family history blog photo

Discovering your family’s history can be a complicated process, but even if you think you already know a great deal about where you came from, delving into your family’s stories can be incredibly rewarding. NMAJH’s new digital story-collecting platform, Re:collection, provides an immersive (and fun!) way to organize your research and share it with family, friends, and the future.

In all the time I’ve spent searching for records online, putting obscure names and phrases into Google search bars, and visiting libraries and archives, the most worthwhile part of my research has been interviewing my relatives. After interviewing my relatives, I learned a lot about my great-great-grandparents, Aaron David and Rebecca Simonoff (pictured above!), who immigrated to New York from Russia.

While archival research can tell you the facts like the address where your family members lived or when they were born, interviewing helps you get to that elusive next step of finding out what life was like for these people—what they ate, what they did for fun, what they remember about their childhood. Taking the time to sit down with relatives or friends and ask them to share their memories is incredibly worthwhile, both for the experience itself and for the homemade archive you and future generations will long cherish.

As an intern here at NMAJH, I love listening to the stories that visitors record in the “It’s Your Story” booths on the second floor. The video recording booths provide an opportunity to pass along a family tradition, share a funny story, memorialize a name.

So you want to find out more about your family history. Where to begin? Here are some tips I have picked up from my experience digging in to genealogy research over the last few years.

→ Determine what you know. A good place to start is to sketch out what you know of your family tree and list the critical facts (birth/death years, places lived, immediate family members) for each person. This will help you determine what exactly you want to find out and provide a framework for your research.

→ Know when to be specific.
When you’re conducting an interview, it’s a good idea to be prepared with specific questions to prompt discussion, avoiding yes or no questions. Try not to interrupt if the interviewee is in the middle of a good story, even if he/she is not really answering your question.

→ Record the interview.
Recording (with the interviewee’s permission) allows you to focus on the conversation without frantically taking notes. You’re also able to go back and check on the exact spelling or names of places or things referenced by the interviewee without having to interrupt them to clarify during the interview.

→ Know how to deal with inconsistencies in your research.
Your grandfather may insist in an interview that his father was born in a certain year, but you go to the city archives and find out that his birth certificate says otherwise. These kinds of conundrums are part of what makes family history research interesting and exciting. Don’t assume that any one source is always correct—just as a relative may not remember something correctly, the census taker may just as easily have skipped a line or have illegible handwriting.

Share your research. Your family members will be interested in what you’ve found. Make your discoveries accessible and concise. That’s where Re:collection comes in! Share your stories by logging in at and exploring the many offerings of the digital platform.

-Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

10.31.17: Celebrating Interfaith Family Month

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By Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia


 Bridget loves bernie 2
Bridget loves bernie caption

In 1973 CBS executives cancelled the TV show Bridget Loves Bernie in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed the show’s portrayal of the couple’s interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.

A lot has changed in the nearly 45 years since Bridget Loves Bernie’s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television. The number of Jews in interfaith marriages has greatly increased (according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isn’t Jewish). As I wrote in a blog a few years ago, it’s no longer “a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice).”

At InterfaithFamily, we welcome and celebrate all of the “Bridgets” and “Bernies” out there – and we empower them to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices. We have a free clergy referral service for interfaith couples and families looking for Jewish clergy to officiate life cycle events, and our website provides resources and personal stories of people in interfaith relationships. Additionally, as part of our Your Community Initiative, we have offices in several cities, including Philadelphia, where we offer workshops and programs for couples in interfaith relationships as well as individual consultations. InterfaithFamily also works with synagogues and Jewish institutions to help them welcome and embrace people in interfaith relationships, so that they can contribute to Judaism’s enduring strength and continuity. Here in Philadelphia, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia provides Professional Development for local Jewish organizations, as do our local offices in other communities.


And in Philadelphia, each November we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. In the month of Thanksgiving, we show our thanks to all of the interfaith couples and families in our area. This November, 77 Philadelphia area synagogues and Jewish organizations, including the National Museum of American Jewish History, are participating in Interfaith Family Month. The participating organizations join us in making a bold statement that we will continue to build an inclusive Jewish community.

As I have written: “Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for [InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia] ‘primetime’ is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. [During this month we join together with other organizations to let people in interfaith relationships] know that we don’t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. [We] let those Jews who have partners who aren’t Jewish know that …we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we don’t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. [We] declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish community—and we welcome anyone who wants to join us. [During] Interfaith Family Month [we] let all of the ‘Bernies’ out there know that we don’t love them any less because they love ‘Bridget. And [we let] all of the ‘Bridgets’ out there [know that] we hope that just as you love ‘Bernie,’ you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.”

I hope that you’ll join InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and all of the organizations participating in Interfaith Family Month 2017 in showing your gratitude to the interfaith couples and families you know that are engaging with the Jewish community. And if you yourself are in an interfaith relationship, we would love to connect with you. Visit to learn more.

NMAJH is proud to participate in Interfaith Family Month. Throughout the month, a special visitor guide geared toward Interfaith Family experiences will be available at the front desk.


9.28.17: Rapping through Jewish history

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How can you condense 360+ years of American Jewish history in a fun, memorable way? NMAJH Board Member Alec Ellison took on the challenge with this Hamilton-style rap. Watch the below video, then try to rap it yourself! Let us know if you're able to master the lyrics in a comment. Now we just need someone to beatbox...


American Jewish History Rap
By Alec Ellison

An ancient people from the land of the Bible;
Who knew first hand about exile and survival.
Like others, they came here to realize their dreams;
For liberty and freedom from oppressive regimes.

The #1 founding father - I'm talkin' George Washington;
Gave a big veto to persecution!
"To bigotry no sanction," he emphatically said;
Now.....Jews in America knew they could get ahead!

First came the Sephardim - Jews exiled from Spain;
Ashkenazim from Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine.
Most came with little 'cept ambition and their brains;
Their religious tradition they fought hard to maintain!

Across America they spread far and wide;
Though many got their start on the Lower East Side.
In fields quite diverse they made huge contributions;
In medicine and science, they found new solutions.

Levy, Lazarus, Lauder, Streisand, Szold, SoloMON;
Brandeis, Berlin, Bernstein, Gershwin, Gompers, Grove, PerlMAN,
Einstein, Dylan, Roth, Rothko, Heschel, SchneerSON;
Kissinger, Koufax, Ginsburg, Sarnoff, Spielberg, LieberMAN!

Changed film, finance, and fashion - for polio found two cures;
Strauss, Dell, Schultz, Page, Brin, Zuckerburg - and other entrepreneurs.
Three centuries and counting - it's one amazing story;
Time now to learn more 'bout their challenges and glory...

9.19.17: Remembering Football Great Sid Luckman

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This month, football fans celebrated the kickoff of the NFL’s 98th season. And 78 years ago, an up-and-coming Jewish football star was gearing up for his first season as a professional player.

It was not the path Sid Luckman thought he would take, but this Chicago Bears quarterback made history—being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player was just one highlight of Luckman’s illustrious athletic career.

Sid Luckman FootballSid Luckman (1916-1998) was born in Brooklyn to German-Jewish immigrants. As a kid growing up in Flatbush, he always had either a baseball or football in hand, and made the junior varsity football team as a freshman at Erasmus Hall High School. Sought-after by college recruiters, Luckman had his choice of schools, and decided to enroll at Columbia University in New York City. With no athletic scholarships offered there at the time, Luckman often juggled multiple jobs to make his way through. In addition to playing football for the Columbia Lions, Luckman was a member of Zeta Beta Tau, a historically Jewish fraternity.

Columbia didn’t have the strongest collegiate team, but Luckman was a standout. He had not originally intended to pursue a career in professional football – he married shortly after graduating in 1939, and planned to join his family’s trucking business – but he was urged to go pro by Chicago Bears coach George Halas, who had seen Luckman play.

Halas must have been convincing, because Luckman went on to join the Bears for 12 seasons. He was known as the “Master of the T-Formation,” pioneering this offensive strategy. November 14, 1943 was declared “Sid Luckman Day” in New York to commemorate the Brooklyn native’s incredible performance that day, contributing to the Bears’ win over the Giants, 56-7.

I was curious about Luckman’s connection to Judaism, and in what ways his background and career might have converged. Unlike Sandy Koufax, Luckman didn’t make a name for himself after choosing to sit out a game in observance of a Jewish holiday. In an interview in 1949 for Sport magazine, Luckman commented, “I go to the temple regularly and I observe the high holidays and I never go to bed at night without saying a little prayer.” Luckman made little else public about his relationship with religion. Still, the “greatest long-range passer of his time” remains an icon of Jewish Americans in sports.

You can see Luckman’s football on view at NMAJH, or find out more about Jews in American sports on our Only in America website.

-Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

Football signed by Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears. National Museum of American Jewish History, 2008.35.1, Gift of George Blumenthal.



8.24.17: Interns' Favorite Objects, Part 2

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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 2 of the interns’ favorite objects, along with how and why they were moved by them…

Lila Currie, Marketing/Communications Intern:Trefa menu

My favorite object is the menu from the Trefa Banquet in 1883 located on the 4th floor. I’m a history major, and I love finding funny and interesting events from history to bring a broader historical period or trend into perspective. The Trefa Banquet, the infamous dinner where a meeting of Jewish congregations and graduates from a Hebrew college was celebrated with entirely non-kosher foods, is such an odd and intriguing indicator of the course that American Judaism has taken.

Jacqueline Bein, Curatorial Intern:

My favorite object in the Museum is the poem in Hebrew commemorating Abraham Lincoln, written by Isaac Goldstein in 1865. Located on the 4th floor, the poem spells out Lincoln’s name as an acrostic in the style of some Jewish liturgy still recited today. The Civil War era is a part of American history that I enjoy studying but had never thought about from the perspective of Jews who lived through it, and I loved making that connection.

Alana Khaytin, Public Programs/Group Services Intern:

My favorite object in the Museum is the Rebecca Rubin American Girl Doll released in 2009. Rubin is a first generation 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 with her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. This object is especially meaningful to me, because my father emigrated from Russia when he was 20 years old. This doll is important not only to Jewish people but can also be relatable to anyone who is a first generation US citizen.

Koufax baseballChelsea Herron, Applebaum Family Intern for Curatorial Collections:

I grew up watching baseball and going to games. I have always wanted to catch a baseball and get it signed, but it’s never happened. Every time I see Sandy Koufax’s signed baseball in the first floor Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame, it makes me think of my childhood and going to games with my dad!

Connie Chen, Development Intern:
I love Hutzler’s handbag and boots on the 3rd floor mainly because I really love the fashion trend back in the beginning of the nineteenth century. I actually love all of the objects in the “Business of Business” case in the 3rd floor gallery! I love that every object here—even a small mirror or box—is full of history.

Rachel Kline, Education Intern:

My favorite item in the Museum is the dress in the Purim Ball gallery on the 4th floor. I love looking at costumes from bygone eras because it humanizes people from the distant past. Women wore dresses just like I do today, but they were much more elaborate than the simple sundresses I wear during the summer. Costuming is also an important indicator of the social status of its owner and can tell the viewer a lot about the life of the woman who once wore the dress.

Janie Kline, Education Intern:

My favorite “object” in the Museum is the interactive touchscreen in the “Camping” gallery on the 2nd floor that allows you to look up photos from various Jewish summer camps. I went to Jewish sleepaway camp for many years and was also a camper/counselor at my local Jewish community center. Going to summer camp was always something I looked forward to, and if you look up my old sleepaway camp (Capital Camps) on the screen, you can even find a picture of me from when I was younger!

Sage Magee, Museum Store Intern:

MenorahMy favorite object is the small silver “couch” menorah on the 4th floor. It has a lovely simple design, and when separated, looks like a tiny couch. I love that someone created an item like this that was intended to be used on-the-move but also incorporated a whimsical design component.

Stephanie Bitman, Education/Group Services Intern:

My favorite object in the Museum is the display of the Brooklyn Jewish Center on the 3rd floor. The miniature display features a basketball court, synagogue, and ballroom. It really interests me to see that this Jewish Center served as a precedent of sorts for Jewish community centers that followed.

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) Menu for the “Trefa Banquet,” Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1883. The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.
2) Baseball signed by Sandy Koufax. National Museum of American Jewish History, 2004.1.2, Gift of George Blumenthal
3) Go to Camp! Interactive
4) Compact, portable silver Hanukkah lamp with hinged bottom and removable oil reservoir tray, Caribbean (Curaçao or Jamaica), early eighteenth century. National Museum of American Jewish History, 1981.1.1a

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