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Museum Musings

3.10.16: Women’s History Month at NMAJH. And Please—Would it hurt to call your mother?

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There is much to kvell about at the National Museum of American Jewish history, but am particularly proud of what an excellent job we do of integrating women's history in our core exhibition. It makes perfect sense that we do, and our beloved academic advisors, Michael Berenbaum, Pamela Nadell, Jonathan Sarna, and Beth Wenger, wouldn't have had it any other way. It goes without saying that women are central to Jewish life, tradition, innovation, and continuity.

Imagine our core story, or American Jewish history, without Rebecca Gratz, Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, Rose Schneiderman. Gertrude Berg/Molly Goldberg, Barbra Streisand, Golda Meir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem…

Born to a Jewishly observant Philadelphia family, Rebecca Gratz used her family's prominence and resources to do good in society. She joined with the gentile elite to help establish the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, which supported women whose families were suffering in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. She also founded Jewish philanthropies including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. Perhaps most notably, we have her to thank for establishing, in 1838, Hebrew Sunday School and supplementary Jewish education.

The breathtaking Thomas Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz that belongs to our colleagues at the Rosenbach Library is currently in a beautiful exhibition in Princeton. On occasion, we at NMAJH are privileged to borrow that portrait and exhibit it with other of her belongings, including her writing desk and her silver shoe buckles, designed by the great Jewish colonial silversmith, Myer Myers, both on view on the 4th Floor of the Museum.  

The Gratz family were active congregants at Mikveh Israel. When you visit NMAJH, make the short walk to the historic "synagogue of the Revolution." Rebecca and other Gratz family members are buried at the Mikveh Israel cemetery.

The poet Emma Lazarus is best known for her 1883 sonnet, The New Colossus, which graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and is quoted from memory by many current immigrants and their descendants. She became an advocate for the Jews who sought refuge here as a result of the Russian pogroms. I highly recommend Esther Schor's fascinating and readable short biography on Lazarus. (Sold in our Store here.)

I had the distinct honor of having a conversation with Leonard Lauder for an intimate audience at the Museum a few months ago. Among the many topics discussed, perhaps none was as fascinating as his filial observations of his mother, Estee Lauder. Born to Hungarian immigrants, she helped concoct face creams on the same Upper West Side stove on which she prepared Leonard's lunch. Her date book in our Only in America/Hall of Fame Gallery confirms this confluence. In the same week she meets with scions of business and industry and reminds herself to buy matzoh for Seder. No working woman can see Estee's engagement calendar without a grin of recognition.

Celebrate Women's History Month by visiting the Museum to learn more about these any many other extraordinary individuals. And please-would it hurt to call your mother?

Our colleagues at Jewish Women's Archive do a fabulous job of documenting the important and ongoing contributions of Jewish women. Take the opportunity to learn more at

NMAJH docents offer a special women's-themed tour. Please see or call 215.923.3811 for more information.


Ivy L. Barsky

Chief Executive Officer and Gwen Goodman Director

National Museum of American Jewish History



2.9.16: Drumming up Cross-Cultural Understanding

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A student said to me upon entering the Museum, "Trav, look at those stairs! How'd they do that?" Another student said, "This place looks incredible! Check out the writing on the wall, "Until we are all free, we are none of us, free" - Emma Lazarus. That reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!"

My name is Kevin Travers and I am a special education teacher in Bristol Township. I started a bucket drumming group in 2000 called Drummers With Attitude (DWA). One of my goals was to start a program that helps connect students to one another as well as to the outside world.

On MLK day, we were invited to perform two shows at NMAJH. With each show, we performed one piece for the audience and two pieces where we invited the audience to participate. On our visit, we were introduced to visitors from not only different states but different countries as well. The
 students in DWA had the chance to meet and interact with different cultures.

Our experience at the Museum was one that we will not forget. Exposing students to cultures and histories outside of their own is essential to breaking down the lack of understanding that sometimes exists between them. "I never knew that happened," was a comment made from one of my students exiting WWII portion of the Museum’s core exhibition.

Finding ways to reach students of the 21st century is an immense challenge for most educators. Our experience at the Museum was not only a fun performance, but an invaluable educational field trip that we will always remember.

Written by:
Kevin Travers
Photo by Kevin Travers


1.7.16: American Roots: The Andrews Family

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We often get research inquiries about Haym Salomon (1740-1785). Students and textbook editors, journalists, history buffs, and bloggers are intrigued by the Polish-born Jewish businessman who helped the Patriot cause at key moments by converting loan paperwork into cash for the Revolutionary government and the army. He played an important role in the war and in the early nation as a broker to Robert Morris’s Office of Finance and it only adds to his mystique to learn that he died young – he didn’t even live to see our first President George Washington’s inauguration. Many founding fathers knew that Salomon had been a hard-working and reliable asset to their cause, but with his death his pregnant wife and young children found themselves in difficult circumstances and his memory seemed to slide into obscurity.


Over the centuries, though, his descendants cherished their patriotic legacy while leading pretty fascinating lives themselves. A few years ago some of those descendants donated a trove of artifacts to NMAJH and now a special installation on NMAJH’s first floor features letters, marriage certificates, prayer books, advertisements, and other artifacts from our fascinating Andrews family collection. Dr. Joseph L. Andrews and his nieces, nephews, and children trace their heritage not only to Salomon and his daughter, Sallie, but also to Major Benjamin Nones who served some of the best-known names in the Revolution: the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, and Casimir Pulaski. Nones received a citation for bravery in the Battle of Charleston. In the nineteenth century, Andrews family members were among the earliest Jewish residents of far-off cities like Huntsville, Alabama, while others helped establish the Jewish community of Memphis, Tennessee and put down roots in cities from New Orleans to New York City.

 It was a lot of fun to view the installation with several generations of Andrews family members recently. Over lunch, our staff got to know them a little better and we had a chance to invite them into our core exhibition galleries to explore more of the history that their ancestors helped to shape. I hope you will come see the installation, too – it’s on view through February 7, 2016 on the Museum’s first floor, which is always free to visit.

Claire Pingel

Chief Registrar and Associate Curator
National Museum of American Jewish History


12.22.15: I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas...

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I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas...


I knew the song before I knew the words. As a little girl I always looked forward to decorating for Christmas with my mom and, in particular, displaying one music box that played this wonderful song. 


To me this was the most precious decoration. A small clear box with a grand Christmas tree inside that illuminated as it spun. Humming along to the song, I would watch as the music box Christmas tree twirled while my mom and I baked gingerbread cookies. This song would bring to me the feelings of joy and excitement with full anticipation of the holiday season. 


As Assistant Registrar, I am honored to work closely with the artifacts in the Museum's collection. Every time I see the White Christmas sheet music by Irving Berlin on display in the third floor gallery, these wonderful feelings and memories come back to me - all because of my favorite Christmas music box.


Sasha Makuka


11.24.15: Chutzpah, That’s Dr. Ruth!

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Chutzpah, that's Dr. Ruth! Almost 5 feet of chutzpah, and then another 5 feet of fierce joie de vivre!

When I first heard that Dr. Ruth would be coming to the Museum I thought that I would see a hundred-year-old woman talking about sex.  I remember in my earlier years hearing Dr. Ruth talking about things that nobody really talked about out loud. And she educated us all in life and sex. But now I’ve grown up and so has she.