Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland's long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in Beechwood, Ohio.
Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.
"Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story," says Maltz. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and the United States.
The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum's major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of Akron, Ohio, native astronaut Judith Resnick, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.
In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone - literally - for the visitor's tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra's principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. This tableau ushers one into "They've Arrived!" - the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland's first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.
Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten "ethical will" addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amid the temptations of the New World.
To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.
Later on, a film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.
Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored - in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero's creation by the local writer-artist team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.
Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple's collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.
While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum's executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.
"It's wonderful to have this in our own backyard," says Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. "This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children."