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Museum Musings

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

4.25.17: Discovering the Reinsteins

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Curatorial Assistant Lauren Cooper shares a story she discovered while working on the special exhibition, 1917: How One Year Changed the World, on view March 17 – July 16, 2017 at NMAJH.

Boris Reinstein
By the time he was thirty, Boris Reinstein had become involved in a plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III of Russia, served two years in a French prison for making explosives, and fled several European countries for his Socialist activities.

In 1892, Boris followed his wife Anna to Buffalo, NY, where she had moved two years earlier to become the first female gynecologist in western New York. Boris and Anna became US citizens, raised two children, and took active roles in local commerce and politics. But Boris never forgot his homeland or his ideals, and when revolution broke out in 1917, he left his family in New York and returned to Russia, where he quickly rose to prominence in the new Bolshevik government.

I came across the first reference to Boris Reinstein, by chance, while conducting artifact research for our new special exhibition 1917: How One Year Changed the World. The reference appeared in notes from a meeting of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Moscow, and identified him only as “Comrade Reinstein,” a representative of the workmen societies of America. The mention of an unfamiliar American with a Jewish name caught my attention in a document filled with speeches by the well-known Russian leaders Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.

Another mention of Comrade Reinstein, in a publication of the Socialist Labor Party of America, led me to Boris and Anna. With some online digging I came across a small library outside of Buffalo that houses the Reinstein family’s documents and artifacts—some of which are included in 1917 and are being exhibited to the public for the first time. From there I sifted through official documents from the Reinstein Family Archive and the National Archives, digitized newspaper clippings, and recorded oral histories to piece together as much of their story as possible.

Sources about Boris’ career in Russia are especially difficult to find, but with each new discovery the Reinsteins’ story becomes more and more exciting. I was surprised to learn about the different, sometimes contradictory, paths taken by each family member. For example, after Boris returned to Russia to build a Communist society, his American-born son Victor, a veteran of World War I, invested in real estate, accumulated a fair amount of wealth, and became involved in philanthropy in upstate New York.
1917 install

This is my favorite thing about NMAJH’s exhibition, 1917; it features stories of individuals, like the Reinsteins, who appear in few history books. Many were ordinary Americans, yet all responded to world events—the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, and the signing of the Balfour Declaration—in extraordinary ways, leaving lasting impressions on their communities and, sometimes, the world.

I hope that as you explore this exhibition—which demonstrates how the events of 100 years ago impacted Americans then and continue to impact us today—you are inspired by these amazing stories of people just like you and me.

Lauren Cooper
Curatorial Assistant
National Museum of American Jewish History

4.6.17: How about a new Haggadah?

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By Kristen Kreider and Karen Coleman

Did you know the National Museum of American Jewish History has 179 Haggadot in its artifact collection? The Haggadah (or Haggadot in plural form) is the book read on the first two nights of Passover at the Seder, or the ceremonial Passover meal. It tells the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, when the Jews fled slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh. Reading the Haggadah fulfills the commandment to “tell your son” the story of how G-d saved the Jews from slavery.

Every Haggadah tells the order of the Seder, but the interpretation of each part of the Seder can vary from Haggadah to Haggadah, with unique interpretations and explanations that make the Passover story relevant to the Jewish experience today. With the holiday just a few days away, here are some unique, funny, and meaningful haggadot that we love for this year’s Passover Seder.


For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them contains all the necessary elements of a Haggadah with some good ol’ Jewish humor sprinkled throughout to keep the Seder lively and enjoyable.


The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings tells the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt using baseball images and language, while staying faithful to the elements of a traditional Seder.


Our Passover Haggadah is a beautifully illustrated Haggadah produced exclusively for the National Museum of American Jewish History. While maintaining the traditional elements of a Haggadah, it focuses on pursuing freedom on every level—physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—to make it a relevant text for contemporary Seders.

Kristen Kreider is Director of Retail Operations for the NMAJH Museum Store. Karen Coleman is E-Commerce Manager and Graphic Designer.

3.24.17: That Time 12 Rappers Descended on NMAJH

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By Rebecca Bar, Director of Operations, Bible Raps

Bible raps imageThere are very few places where Jewish educators and professionals of all denominations and affiliations can mingle with new immigrants, Yiddish socialists, outspoken activists, various Rabbis, and summer campers. But during Bible Raps’ 1st Annual Hip Hop, Text, and Judaism Retreat, we did just that by touring through, and writing about, the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Designed to bring the richness of Jewish wisdom, history, and traditions to life through original albums, creation of participant-generated rap songs, and music videos, Bible Raps educates and inspires Jewish people to see Judaism as a living and breathing experience, fostering a generation that self identifies with Jewish wisdom and heritage. At our retreat, we brought together 12 participants interested in learning our methods and taking them back to their own communities and organizations.

The weekend began with a guided tour of the Museum, where participants had an opportunity to take notes on areas that interested them. We then enjoyed a spiritual Kabbalat Shabbat to end our first day, with thoughts of Leo Max Frank, JTS, and Isaac Mayer Weiss percolating. In preparation for writing our final song, what eventually became “Good Morning America,” we spent the evening practicing making raps together. Using actual text from the Museum exhibits and the skills learned over the weekend, Saturday night we created as a group, first working on the hook and chorus about the history of American Jews, and then each participant had a turn on the mic for their specific verse. The collaboration was really a highlight and that energy comes through in the song. A retreat participant noted, “The concept of the retreat was great and the end project was fun. Everyone wanted to be there, which was the most beautiful aspect of the whole weekend.” It was a celebration!

The last day of our retreat, we went back to the Museum for shooting and the participants rapped in front of the exhibits -- the ultimate video shoot location! We’re so thankful for the opportunity to work with the National Museum of American Jewish History and invite you to enjoy the music video about the history of Jewish life in America, entitled “Good Morning America.”



We are excited for our 2nd Annual Hip Hop, Text, and Judaism retreat later this year. If you’d like to be a part of it, please be in touch with us at