There are places in the world I would expect that my Jewish identity would be at the forefront of my experience. In Israel, I feel a connection to the long history of my people, and pride in the country we have built today. In parts of Europe, I am able to explore where my family once was until they were forced to flee – or until they were killed. I never expected to have a meaningful Jewish experience in Philadelphia.
Today is my first full day in the city and, like many new tourists, I spent most of it wandering through the pages of American history that come to life on every street here. I saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, and then my eye stumbled upon a glass facade across the street, and a white banner with a simple – and meaningful – quotation from George Washington in a 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport.
Happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.
This modern building houses the National Museum of American Jewish History and, thanks to Visit Philly, I was armed with a pass that would allow me to see the museum – and so many others in the city – free of charge. I decided to give it a try.
Built in 2010, the museum explores the American story of the Jews who came to call this place home, from the first 23 Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam who fled the Dutch colony in Recife, Brazil when it was conquered by Portugal all the way to modern American Judaism. I was transfixed, and spent nearly two hours wandering the exhibits.
I learned about Haym Solomon, the prime financier of the fledgling American army during the Revolutionary War. I discovered Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State.
I saw exhibits to the Jewish immigration experience, to the rise of Reform Judaism, to efforts at both assimilation and at holding on to traditions. There was even an exhibit on the Jewish summer camp experience, something that shaped my Jewish identity to a large degree.
I felt angry when exposed to anti-Semitism that has existed in the states that passed laws only allowing Christians to hold office. I felt shame reading about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. I felt pride for the Jews who fought to end slavery and who marched with Martin Luther King.
At the end was a rotating video to American Jewish heroes from Emma Lazarus – author of the poem that sits on the base of the Statue of Liberty – to famed Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Jonas Salk – who created the polio vaccine – and Albert Einstein. I sat for more than 30 minutes and didn’t see them all.
In my life, I have struggled with what it means to be Jewish, to be American, to be a good person, and to be myself. Sometimes these roles seem at odds with each other. Today, they don’t. Today, I am grateful for those who have come before, who have paved the way for me to be able to have a Jewish identity in the country I call home. Today, I am proud of those Jews who fought to uphold the values that my Judaism has instilled in me, and angry at those who – to me – betrayed those values.
So today, thanks to my incredible experience at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, I renew myself to all of those parts of my Jewish identity, and I resolve to move forward stronger than ever before.