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Museum Musings

11.30.16: Steely Van, An Abridged Autobiographical Tale

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Dear Reader,

Why, you might ask, is a 1979 Volkswagen Microbus writing a blog post? It is quite a curious question. After all, when I was born, there was no such thing as a blog, let alone the internet, and the average computer was much larger than my sleek and colorful frame. But despite my advanced age, I’ve managed to keep up with the times, and therefore when asked by my compatriots at the National Museum of American Jewish History to write this post, I was happy to oblige.

Driving Steely

The second question you might ask is what does a VW Microbus have to do with the National Museum of American Jewish History on historic Independence Mall in Philadelphia? Well, as some of you know, the Museum is hosting the special exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, which tells the story of a very special man and the major ’60s and ’70s acts he helped make famous, including the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, and so many more! Buses like me were popular modes of transportation in the ’60s and ’70s, and would take people like you to concerts all over the country!

Much like my passengers over the years, I’ve led a somewhat itinerant life. I was born in California, then made my way to Louisiana and Boston before finding my current home in Philadelphia. And I’ve got to tell you, life has been pretty good to me. I’ve had so many interesting owners and passengers over the years. Though I’ve been sworn to secrecy by previous owners and passengers, the folks at NMAJH said they would love for me to tell the story of my time here, so that’s exactly what I’m doing, and man, it feels good!!!

The first thing that happened when I arrived to NMAJH is they saw that I was a bit worn down and they understood that I REALLY wanted a makeover. So Yael from the Museum asked the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program if they would help. Mural Arts said “groovy, man!” and hired artist Charles Barbin to create a way cool psychedelic design that he drew all over me. Then, members of the public were invited to come paint in the Painting Steelydesign (it was a “paint by numbers” type thing… that was really popular when I was a kid, so it made me feel super nostalgic). It was July 17—one of the hottest days of the summer—and the artist and NMAJH staffers and members of the public stuck it out until I was painted all over. I definitely felt LOOOVED! 


When they saw that my wheels had gotten a bit rusty, Jack from the Museum found a few different mechanics (yes, we did have to try a few, but we never gave up!), Alyssa and Ilana from the Museum made sure I got to every one of them to get the TLC I needed, and Don made sure I was properly insured for my next adventure, which was a “trip” to WXPN’s XPonential Festival… It was a blast!! After that I unfortunately broke down again, but since it was my lifelong dream to visit the Folk Festival, my friends Julie, Liz, Ryan, and Anne made a video for Kickstarter and raised $10,000 to help fix my tired bones in time for me to realize my dream. I could not be more grateful!

Since the exhibition about my man Bill and all the bands I love so much opened on September 16, I’ve been enjoying meeting a ton of people. I’ve been resting my newly rejuvenated wheels on the Museum’s Plaza. There is this new thing called Instagram, and I’ve been getting so much attention from people from all over the world who pose with me and then “post” on this Instagram “app” with the hashtag #GrahamRocks. Jenny from the Museum will occasionally “regram” some of the posts. You should come out and try it yourself; you might become Insta-famous!! I’ll be here until January 16... I hope to meet you in person before then!

Steely Van



Steely exponential 2


9.2.16: Reflecting on the Café Conversation: “America’s Newest Jews”

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On July 13, the National Museum of American Jewish History hosted Drs. Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt of Whitman College, who held a conversation on their new book, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews. Inspired by their own family, Kim and Leavitt researched and wrote JewAsian as a qualitative examination of the intersection of race, religion, and ethnicity in the increasing number of households that are Jewish American and Asian American. Jeremy Wolin, who interned this summer in the Marketing and Communications department of the Museum – and who identifies as “JewAsian” himself – attended the talk and reflected on the experience:

When asked about how Jewish-Asian couples choose synagogue affiliation, Helen Kim responded that of the couples she and Noah Leavitt interviewed, choices ranged from calculated searches for the most inclusive synagogue in the region to which would require the shortest drive. However, she claimed, many of their respondents spoke of a consistent theme – that where each couple found a source of community was often not where they first expected.

This discovery held true for me at last month’s Café Conversation, “America’s Newest Jews,” where I listened to Kim and Leavitt essentially describe my childhood in their findings. Kim and Leavitt, partly in response to their own family’s background, have researched the emergence of “JewAsian” families, those in which one parent is Jewish-American and one is Asian-American. I identify as part of this new demographic: my father is Korean-American; my mother is of Ashkenazic Jewish heritage.

The similarities between Kim and Leavitt and my own family were at times uncanny – the academic parents who met in graduate school, one Korean American from the Bay Area, one Jewish American from the Northeast; the effort to learn Korean; and the mixed (and at times contradictory) cultural and religious practices.

My childhood also echoed Kim and Leavitt’s finding that both parents often adopt the other’s cultural and religious practices. My father does the majority of the cooking in our household, so of course he cooks our Passover Seder. My mother’s chopstick technique is more correct than my father’s, and my dad’s more flexible schedule meant that he always drove me to Hebrew school despite my constant protests.

Growing up in an inclusive Reform synagogue in Connecticut, I was immune to many of the issues that could have arisen as a Jew of mixed identity. At one extreme of inclusion, my Bar Mitzvah service included a speech by my uncle, a minister in the Konko sect of the Shinto religion, and one of my non-Jewish Asian-American cousins recited a poem he had written. Yet, when more conservative synagogue leadership later kept my father from certain modes of participation, or bungled his foreign-sounding name for comedic effect, I found it hard not to wonder if his and my Asian-American identity was a factor in our otherness – an identifier that visually labeled my dad and my family as different.

Kim and Leavitt noted this same reaction in what perhaps has been the highest profile Jewish-Asian union: the marriage of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan. The little pushback that the couple did receive came from American Jews who warned of “losing” a Jewish man and his children to intermarriage, often without knowledge of Chan’s religion nor any knowledge of the family’s intentions.

Yet, with a 2010 Pew Research Center survey demonstrating that nearly nine out of ten millennials accept interracial marriage and a 2012 survey showing that Jewish intermarriage has steadily risen since the data was first tracked in 1970, the Zuckerberg-Chans are emblematic of tomorrow’s American Jews. How these families and their children are received by the Jewish community will truly determine whether “America’s newest Jews” are “lost.”

At last month’s Café Conversation, I found the National Museum of American Jewish History committed not only to preserving, but to celebrating these diverse narratives of American Jews, and I, too, found an unexpected sense of community.

– Jeremy Wolin, NMAJH Intern, Brown | RISD ‘19

8.16.16: Assorted Invitations...

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