I visited the American Jewish History Museum for the first time this past month. This is a large, beautiful building with five stories from which, one starts at the top and works his or her way down to the bottom. The museum goes in chronological order and at the highest floor there is a rotating exhibit. Right now, this exhibit is Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American.
The museum was nothing like I would have imagined. In school so far, Jewish culture has rarely been taught and in the few instances where it is, the Holocaust is usually the focus. But I never hear much about the history of Jewish people in the Americas and I wasn’t sure what information on Jewish culture that I would find in such a large space. One of the things I was most impressed with on my visit is the ability of the Jewish to preserve their culture wherever they go.
Most of the Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi Jews. I’ve known for a while that Jews are a very nomadic people and have been in many parts of the world. But at this museum I really got to see the migration of Jews, with giant maps on each floor that went along with the time period. It was incredibly interesting. At one point there were even Jews living on the coast of Brazil. I learned that Jewish people throughout history tended to marry within their communities to neighbors or family friends and this has helped them maintain their culture.
I was surprised that not only does Pennsylvania have a large population of Jews, but so does Philadelphia. I’ve already known that Philadelphia has such importance in American history, but this fact just increased my awe at how ethnically diverse Philadelphia really is.
I was reading a sign about Jews in education, when an older couple came up to me. The woman was Jewish and she began talking to me about what it was like for her father growing up, and how colleges would limit the number of Jews accepted by recognizing common Jewish last names. I really appreciated that this woman decided to share her experiences with me.
I learned about American Jewish lifestyle when they first came over and were very confused by it all, especially the religious aspect. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like, living as a Jew during that time and I couldn’t wrap my head around why Jewish people held on so strongly to their faith if it caused them to be discriminated against. I was really curious about how Jews were able to do so well and be successful in foreign lands, when they started out with nothing. In some ways I think I am a bit jealous of Jews and their respect for their culture, and how close their communities are. Although Black communities can be close in some ways, but it has not brought as much prosperity. Looking at Jewish history and lifestyle made me feel as though strong cultural values can lead to your success rather than just environment.
Growing up as a child, the Jewish community was one of the last major ethnic groups of America that I learned about. Sometimes even today I still feel as though Jewish culture is something I’m not very knowledgeable about. This visit has really begun to open my eyes about the Jewish experience and I plan on going back and learning more.