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Museum Musings

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.

As an educator, therapist, mother, and friend, I understand the ups and downs of living. During the 60s I was part of the women’s movement and marched with some of the greats like Gloria Steinem. I was open and ready to learn from Dr. Ruth when she came into her prime. When I was practicing in the 80s and 90s, I often referred to her as a role model. She truly was part of the psychology lexicon.

Monday night, almost 600 people heard her talk on living life with verve, excitement, and joy. “Seize the day” was her primary message. Enjoy the moment. Life itself is living. Although we always hear about living life to the fullest, she takes it one step beyond. She was a perfect fit for this Museum as it educates the public and connects people closer with their pasts.  

I didn’t see a hundred-year-old woman last Monday night. I didn’t see a woman who escaped the Holocaust. I didn’t see a woman who lost her parents at a young age. I saw a woman full of excitement, energy, knowledge, and joy.

-Dr. Judy Finkel volunteers at the Museum as one of two academic liaisons who founded and now oversee the Museum’s thriving internship program.

A Family Tree with Unexpected Roots

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I’ve always envisioned having two specific groups, each having lived at drastically different times and separated by thousands of years, of ancestors. The first group was A Family Tree my foremothers and fathers. The founders of my religion, Judaism, I had studied their lives and stories in the Torah during my thirteen years attending a Hebrew day school. The second group is more like actual relatives, family members who came to America from Europe during the 19th and 20th century, who thrived and grew, with the birth of my grandparents, parents, and then me, a Jewish American.

I accepted these drastically different groups as part of my origins, but never really considered what or who occurred in between biblical times and my distant relatives.
That is, until my first visit to the National Museum of American Jewish History, over two years ago. Just a couple of steps into the core exhibition, I was faced with a family tree of some of the very first Jews who settled in America during the 18th century. These Jews were Spanish and Portuguese, with last names like Gomez and Rodriguez de Rivera. Akin to many of their non-Jewish peers, they were merchants looking for new trade opportunities, and like my relatives who would come over a couple of centuries later, they were also seeking the freedom Jews were not granted in Europe.

Some of these folks formed the first Jewish communities and institutions in North America, like America's first Jewish congregation, Congregation Shearith Israel, who built the first synagogue in New York in 1730 and Touro Synagogue, a 1763 synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America and the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era. Others communities were settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

I began to see that I had another distinct group of ancestors. Maybe the Gomezs and Rodriguez de Riveras’ aren’t my actual family, but they certainly laid an important foundation for future generations of Jews, like my relatives, who sought freedom, opportunities, and refuge in the United States.

Contributed by Jessi Melcer, Executive Assistant and Officer Manager
Photo by Jessi Melcer

Memories That Bind: Lessons my Grandparents Taught Me

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Staff pick- Singer Sewing Machine (3rd Floor, Garment Industry Room) 3rd floor garment industry
madison blog

My mother’s parents worked in the garment industry here in Philadelphia. My grandfather, William Corley, was the head tailor at the Quartermasters building down in South Philadelphia. My grandmother, Alma Swann, was a new girl working in the factory. Where she was sitting on the factory floor just so happened to be right next to my grandfather’s sister who thought it would be a great idea to introduce her brother to this pretty new girl. They met, dated, and fell in love, and as the story goes, had my mother (Beverly Corley Shelton).

The reason I love the Singer sewing machine in the Museum’s collection is that I am reminded of my grandparents and the hard work they did and sacrifices they made in order to have a better life. The trade that they used to feed themselves and literally put clothes on their backs was the singular thing that brought them together. Through their love of fine tailoring and sewing they were able to build a life, support their families, and bring the joy of doing so to others in their neighborhood. Their story reminds me that life is unexpected—that we must make the most of every situation and that we can find happiness in the simplest of things. When I pass the sewing machine in our [name] Gallery I am brought back to Saturday mornings with me sitting on my Pop-pop’s knee as he teaches me how to correctly sew on a button. Or the many hours I spent at my Nana’s side as she stepped on the pedal of her own Singer sewing machine and whizzed though yards of fabric to make play clothes, church outfits, and magic capes.

It seems strange to find so many memories in an object that’s main function is work, but in that industrial frame I find all of the grace and elegance that my grandparents had in their lives, that they instilled in my mother’s life, and that was ultimately passed down to me. I remember that you must live your life the way to want to and resist having a station ascribed to you—that we are more than our ethnicity, gender, and economic status. You are what you put into this world—I thank my Nana and Pop-pop for teaching me that, and the Museum’s Singer sewing machine for reminding me.

By: Madison Shelton, Visitor Services and Volunteer Coordinator

Top photo:Sewing machine of Ruben Mazer, ca. 1905. Gift of Chidren of Ruben Mazer: Esther and Max Pollack, Frances and Simon Frank, Jack and Rose Mazer.  Bottom: Alma Ruth Swann-Corley and William McKinley Corley


All of Israel is Responsible One for the Other

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beryl dean"All of Israel is Responsible One for the Other" -  Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze La’ze - כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה

As a Docent at The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in the heart of historic Philadelphia, I have learned more American history than I could have imagined. I have finally come to more fully appreciate the gifts my grandparents gave to me by taking the dangerous and arduous trip to America and the even more difficult “trip” to becoming American. However, it was not until I was able to share the 360 year old story of Jews in America with Museum visitors, that I gained a greater appreciation for the Talmudic statement which is the title of this piece (The Talmud is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out).

On over 100 tours, I have had the pleasure of leading people from all over the United States and the world, Jews and non-Jews, seniors and school age youngsters. Among them, I experienced five groups, in particular, from whom I learned not only about the world beyond my good life in the "lap of liberty” bestowed by America, but also about the meaning and significance to me of the title of this piece.

IDF soldiers (with translator)

Bruchim ha’ba’im!” or “ Welcome” is my usual greeting to non-English speaking Jewish visitors, followed by my apology, in this case, for not being able to conduct the entire tour in Hebrew.

I soon learned that the soldiers’ English was as good, if not better, than mine. Ya’akov, their very adult chaperone, did not need to translate ... but he did not hesitate to comment in Hebrew on much of what I said. Understanding him, I did not hesitate to respond. Particularly interesting was his comment that America is “too free,” that the rights of the individual have too far surpassed those of the community, state, and nation.

A highlight was my conversation with one of the young soldiers whose parents had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. His interest was America after the Civil War. That he spoke Russian, Hebrew, some Arabic, and English impressed me as much as his interesting choice of academic study.

Reali School (in Haifa)

Another group from Israel came from the Reali public school in Haifa, one which selects students and trains them to be the future leaders of the Jewish State. After my customary Bruchim ha’ba’im, English was no trouble at all with these very polite, yet normal teens. The real fun for me was “eavesdropping” on their adolescent chatter and exchanges in Hebrew.

Group from Italy (with translator):

I signed up to give a tour listed as “visitors from Italy, with the Rabbi as the translator.” After my usual Bruchim ha’ba’im, I found myself chatting in simple Hebrew with the young rabbi, as well as with a charming older gentleman who was introduced to me as the Archbishop. The visitors were part of a Jewish/Catholic tour group from Milan, and the Archbishop explained that he had studied for the priesthood in Israel for a year, where he learned to speak Modern Hebrew.

Many recognize that Italian is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. As I listened to the Rabbi’s melodic voice as he translated my words into Italian, I, with a little bit of help from high school Latin and a mother who spoke French, understood his beautiful words and it was as if I were listening to a Puccini opera!

This group particularly enjoyed the third floor gallery on the New York City Garment Industry when Eastern European Jewish and Southern European Italian immigrants shared the struggle for workers’ rights, a struggle that was transformed by the tragic event of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The Rabbi also reminded us of the saga of Operation Solomon (the arrival of Ethiopian Jews to Israel) and that Ethiopia was once part of the Italian Empire.

Chabad Odessa
(with translator):

I expected a group of women wearing long dresses and sheitls (wigs worn by Orthodox women for modesty) and men with beards in frock coats from “little” Odessa in Brooklyn. Much to my surprise, the group that I watched entering the Museum consisted only of men, of various ages and styles of dress. I had not realized that the group was not from Little Odessa in Brooklyn, but rather from Odessa in the Ukraine!

Again, I started with Bruchim ha’ba’im and found that the group leader happily entered into a conversation with me in Hebrew about where to hang coats, to discover the parts of the Museum that the group wanted to see and where to find the men’s room. My translator spoke perfect English, which he had studied at University where his interest was post-Holocaust history. He was among three or four other members of the group who could speak English, Hebrew, or both.

My personal highlight was Rabbi’s son Shloimi, a delightful nine year old, who asked the best questions of all (of course, translated for me, and my answers for him). As a special treat for Shloimi, we went into the gallery to look at a small artifact of the classic hero “Superman.” After I told him and the men around him that the famous comic hero was created by two young Jewish boys from Cleveland in the 1930s, I asked him where else he had heard something like the Superman story and did he think there was there anything Jewish about it?

I gave him some clues: a baby boy who comes from somewhere else, in some kind of container, is adopted by people not his own, to grow up and become the champion of “The never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Shloimy struggled a bit, as the young translator repeated my question to him in Russian, he then, with a smile of satisfaction said, “Moshe (Moses)!” The others around him also smiled, calling to their friends who were busy looking at other sections of the gallery. They loved it! Torah and Superman!

As our tour was coming to end, I made sure to get them down to the first floor and the “Only in America” exhibition to see the video and small display about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, their Founder, Rebbe, and Messiah. As we said goodbye I wished them L’hitraot, and safe trip home.

As I reflect on the various groups that I have taken through the Museum, I worry particularly about the precious young men and women from Israel whom I had befriended and enjoyed and about their fates in this past summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza. I wonder about the Italian group that has returned to Europe where antisemitism is, once again, rearing its ugly head. And, each time I hear about Russian encroachments on the Ukraine, I fear for those delightful and impressive young men, now that they have returned to the country from which my grandparents fled to make a life in America for themselves. . .and for me.

By Beryl Dean; Museum Docent

Staff Pick - Perfect for Yom Ha'atzmaut

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A Night at the Round Table

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Our Seder table had no head, no foot, no place of honor, no place of shame. And so, though there were several dignitaries and leaders seated at the table, in our conversation no one was more important than anyone else. Freedom yields equality. Around our table, in freedom, all spoke from the heart with candor, humility, and conviction. All comments and questions were received with grace.

The ancient story of Israel’s ancestors, freed from slavery in Egypt, reminded us of our own “enslavements” and longings for freedom. For the ancient story is repeated in one way or another in the lives of all people. The story’s relevance to our particular lives became more obvious and more poignant with each performance on the Freedom Seder’s program. Music, poetry, testimonials, and stories fueled our longings for freedom for ourselves and for all: freedom from and freedom for, especially freedom for peace and justice, mutual respect and deeds of kindness; and freedom from burdens weighing down our psyches and families as well as freedom from our society’s penchant for greed, cruelty, violence, and injustice – society’s sins that keep us all, directly or indirectly, in bondage. zones of peace

As the ancient story of the Exodus was told - and retold in relation to today’s issues - I was filled with gratitude for the Jewishness of my Christian faith. As stories and songs gave urgency and drama to contemporary issues, I was in holy communion with those most affected by each: the stubbornness of racism, the indignities foisted on LGBTQ minorities, the crush of poverty, the struggles of students and their educators, the indifference received by artists, the sorrow of a people identified by holocaust and oppression. I witnessed small steps toward peace and justice being taken around our table as the Rabbi to my right and the Pentecostal Christian to my left asked questions of one another, searching for understanding and common ground.

I was at that table because I am a consultant with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, coordinating the Zones of Peace initiative for the Religious Leaders Council. The RLC includes the leaders of more than 30 religious traditions representing more than 2 million constituents in our region and committed to interfaith understanding and cooperation. Through the Zones of Peace initiative, the RLC honors congregations, organizations, and institutions whose efforts reduce violence and build better communities. The National Museum of American Jewish History is one of more than 50 organizations to be recognized as a “Zone of Peace.” The Freedom Seder is an outstanding example of the efforts that garnered this honor for the Museum, and this year served as the perfect backdrop to officially acknowledge the Museum as a Zone of Peace and to present them with their banner. I loved it and will be back.
“Next year in…”

John Hougen, Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia
Coordinator - Zones of Peace

So, what does freedom mean to you?

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Working on my new project for the Museum, Scattered Light, I was exposed to many personal associations and stories that arise when one is asked:Liat Segal  “What does freedom mean to you?” In Scattered Light, I use phrases taken from the Museum’s It’s Your Story recording booths, which invites visitors to record their answers to various questions. I write this post after long hours of video watching and feel that now it’s my turn to stop and answer this question myself.

The museum recording booth yields a spectrum of associations connected to freedom, from theoretical thoughts to extremely personal stories. My immediate association is very specific: the freedom to create. To create my art and to re-create myself.

About four years ago I re-created and redefined myself. After years in the academy and the high-tech industry, I started creating art. Back then I was working in a great group at a leading software company. I loved my colleagues, my research interested me, and the working conditions were amazing. It was all great, and at the same time something in me felt uncomfortable. So I created.

I started using the tools I had learned, but changed their contexts. I learned electronics and added new techniques to my toolbox. It took me a few years until I was able to say, when asked about my profession, that “I am an artist.” At first I was insecure about my steps but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by an encouraging environment. Lucky to have the emotional space, the physical ability and the support to create. There are still many open questions as I make my first steps into a new world, but I feel that the fact that one has the opportunity to redefine himself means optimism. This change did not happen overnight, but once the process started, for the first time I felt I was in the right place.

By Liat Segal, Artist

Photo by Jessi Melcer