Jerry Seinfeld on new museum of Jewish history

In the 1983 film "Yentl," Barbra Streisand plays an old-world Jewish girl who disguises herself as a boy to receive religious training. With Passover starting at sundown tomorrow, one of the dresses she wore is now on display at a new Jewish museum - a museum with many other links to entertainment, as Rita Braver shows us:


When the National Museum of American Jewish History opened in Philadelphia, who better to host the opening event than Jerry Seinfeld?

"What's the best thing about being Jewish for you?" CBS' Rita Braver asked the comedian in an interview.

"Well, there's no question that a lot of the, whatever gifts that I have, came through this strain of DNA," Seinfeld said. "It can't just be a coincidence that I know how to do this; I didn't learn all this, you know what I mean? How to be a comedian, and how to think funny, or talk funny. Some of that was put in me from other Jews.

So, you know, I'm grateful for that."

In fact, Seinfeld is just one of the prominent Jewish Americans whose work is celebrated at the museum.

There's a pipe that belonged to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein; a glove used by record-breaking baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax; and a piano played by composer Irving Berlin - complete with his lyrics to "God Bless America."

Berlin came to the U.S. as a child, "as an immigrant, served in World War I, and was really an immensely patriotic, patriotic man," said a curator for the museum, Josh Perlman. "And to him, this was a deep expression of his feeling for his homeland."

And as Jewish Americans get ready for the Passover Seder tomorrow night - the ceremonial dinner that celebrates freedom from slavery, the Biblical Exodus of Jews from Egypt - Perlman points out that preparing for the dinner is no picnic for anyone.

"So here's Estee Lauder's planner," says Perlman, opening the book to an entry. "And here you have Thursday, April 4th. 'Go home, order chicken, matzo, etc.' 'Saturday the 6th: Seder.'"

That's right: even the late Estee Lauder made time for matzo as well as make-up.

The museum has been ten years in the making.

"Were you surprised when you heard that they were doing this museum in Philadelphia as opposed to New York or Washington?" Braver asked Seinfeld.

"A little bit," Seinfeld answered. "But I just figured somebody in Philadelphia got it together."

Somebody did. The six-story museum is an outgrowth of a small collection started by a local synagogue.

"The building is 100,000 square feet," says museum president Michael Rosenzweig.

Rosenzweig says Philadelphia Jewish leaders thought it was important to build the new museum, funded mostly through private donations, adjacent to Independence Mall - birthplace of American liberty.

"The story we tell in this museum is fundamentally a story of freedom," he said. "It's a story about what one immigrant ethnic group has been able to achieve. Why? Because we've enjoyed these incredible freedoms in this great nation."

This museum houses a torah - used in Jewish services - that dates from Colonial times, when Jews first came to the New World. But the big wave was much later.

One gallery depicts "all those millions of immigrants who came to the United States around the turn of the century," said Perlman.

Just getting in was a hurdle for Jews and other immigrants of the time. People had to prove they were smart enough by solving puzzles. Miss too much, and you could be turned away.

And though Jewish entrepreneurs like Levi Strauss (who invented blue jeans) could flourish, there was discrimination and anti-Semitism. Early movie stars felt they had to change their names to sound "American."

"You know, that was part of the reality of the industry at that time," said Perlman.

John Garfield started out as Jacob Garfinkel. Sophie Tucker was Sonya Kalish. Edward G. Robinson was Emanuel Goldenberg.

Still, for ambitious Jewish businessmen, like the moguls who started Hollywood's biggest movie studios, entertainment was a place to excel.

"It was very hard for a Jew, maybe, to become a lawyer or a doctor in the 1920s because of entrenched social anti-Semitism," Perlman said. "And therefore, Hollywood, this kind of upstart industry, provided a great opportunity."

There was also the opportunity to be funny.

Comedians like the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle and George Burns flourished here.

The museum focuses not only on the high achievers among American Jews, but also on everyday people relishing the joys of life in a free nation - in fact, the kinds of experiences to which all Americans can relate.

"Is there anything that you found that you don't like about being Jewish?" Braver asked Seinfeld.

"I mean, the relatives are a little annoying," he laughed.

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  • Rita Braver

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