Extend the Vote – Don’t Lock Out American Jews

Museum Undersells Breadth of Contribution


By Edmon J. Rodman

Published August 05, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
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The gates of acknowledgment are closing on Jewish Americans, but it’s time to kick them back open. The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia has recently announced an online vote on who will appear in a multimedia exhibit of the museum’s Only in America Gallery set to open in 2010.

Voting and nominations close tomorrow August 6, and when you check it out you will find that many of your favorites won’t be there.

Although 218 candidates are featured (in several different areas of achievement) the museum’s site poses this intriguing suggestion: “[If] you do not see someone you think should be included, a space has been provided in each category for you to write in your choice.” It’s time to stand up and be counted.

The initial list covers many of the notable you might expect on such a list, Einstein, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Even with the addition of more modern notables, like Woody Allen, Man Ray, Philip Roth, Joe Lieberman, or Joey Ramone, the initial offering tends to read like one of those “they were all Jewish books,” you might have received as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah gift.

It’s the same old categorized list, put together by experts who may know their history, but who don’t really know how to measure who has captured the popular imagination; its taste and mind. I’m already sleepwalking through the exhibit. As the list currently stands, the interactivity will need to include free coffee.

It was Hannah Arendt’s contention that in an industrial society, the work of the laborer disappeared into the work. Here, the museum is practicing a related form of disappearance — by repetition. By repeating many of the same names we forget about everyone else.

You can change this. New nominations need to be made — “a space has been provided.” This is your opportunity.

Let’s take two areas in which Jews excel: one which literally reflects the popular taste — food — a multi-billion dollar industry and currently one at which the list doesn’t even throw a bone, the other, the toy business, another megabillion dollar industry not on the list that might as well be represented by an empty box imprinted with the words, “Jews Not Included.”

First though (always), food. Exactly what is the museum cooking up?

Where is Harold Butler. Who? He’s the entrepreneur who created both Denny’s and Winchell’s. How many American as they sit down to their grand slam breakfasts know the man who created the chain was Jewish?

Or, brother-in-laws Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins, creators of 31 Flavors, American Jews, who with 2,800 locations in the US and 5600 worldwide, changed the way the United States and the world eats ice cream

At the other end of the food see-saw is weight loss. Where is Jean Nidetch, the Founder of Weight Watchers and proud Jewish Brooklynite? She created one of the first effective means of weight loss. Does anyone know her story?

Now, for those of you who were once children, let’s talk toys.

The suggested list is disappointingly weak on invention and design. The US patent office records are filled with applications of people with Jewish surnames. It’s our unknown contribution. Why not draw attention to it?

Where is Marvin Glass, owner, designer, driving force behind the Marvin Glass and Associates toy design firm? In the 70’s and 80’s his creations entertained a generation of American children.

He’s the man responsible for Mr. Machine, Mouse Trap. Rock ‘em Sock ‘em robots, Mystery Date, Operation, Lite Brite and, one of the first successful electronic games, Simon.

Where are Rose and Morris Michtom, creators of the Teddy Bear a true American icon, and founders of Ideal Toys?

Where is Beatrice Alexander, founder of Madame Alexander Toy Company? How can we move ahead without Joshua Lionel Cowan (Cohen) creator of Lionel Trains? Not listed. And where would our psyches be without Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop? Not on the list.

These Jewish folks influenced greatly what and how we eat, and how we play. Turn up the heat, wind up the spring — go online and nominate them.

Edmon J. Rodman has created educational media for the Skirball and Getty Museums. His most recent toy is Do-Re-Mi Musical Blocks.


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