A Star-Studded Gala Launches New American Jewish Museum in Philadelphia

The Incomparable Ms. Midler: Bette Midler performs at the National Museum of American Jewish History gala.
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The Incomparable Ms. Midler: Bette Midler performs at the National Museum of American Jewish History gala.

By Howard Shapiro

Published November 14, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
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There was an enormous covered tent within clanging distance of the unclangable Liberty Bell. There was gourmet, kosher rack of lamb and beet salad with salmon mousse. There were politicians, and there were big-deal donors.

Oh, and did we mention Babs?

Barbra Streisand had come to Philadelphia for a November 13 gala, marking the opening of the new National Museum of American Jewish History on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. The songstress was among the 18 Jews selected for the museum’s “Only in America” hall of fame. She was modest in that role — standing in a spotlight at her table and smiling to the 1,500-plus celebrating donors.

Their meal: $1,500 to $5,000, depending on their level of support, although a number of them had already given major gifts to the museum, which is dedicated to the 350 years of Jewish life in America.

Streisand was far from the only big star at the gathering. Jerry Seinfeld was the evening’s host, and Bette Midler gave a concert after dinner.

The idea for “Only in America” was the brainchild of Ed Snider, chief of the sports and entertainment company Comcast Spectacor. The hall honoring “Only in America” selectees bears Snider’s name, and has an impressive arched screen where film footage and star-filled tributes play.

The honorees were chosen through an international Internet vote — and the results were vetted by curators. Only three of those honored are still alive: Streisand, baseball icon Sandy Koufax and filmmaker Steven Spielberg. After a week of buzzing throughout Philly, the museum announced that Streisand would be attending the gala.

In that announcement, she is quoted as saying: “The museum tells an important Jewish story, but it also underscores the fact that our country affords Americans… the freedom to live, achieve and contribute in their own way to the culture and spirit of America.”

That’s the message that the museum’s administration will depend on to bring diverse groups of visitors — not just Jewish ones — through its doors.

Seinfeld asked at the gala how many in the audience were not Jewish, and a small number of hands shot up. Later he asked how many were not from Philadelphia, and more hands appeared. The comedian had just come from Florida, telling the crowd, “My mother lives in South Florida… as you might imagine.” That flavor marked Seinfeld’s routine throughout the evening — not overtly Jewish, but clearly a Jewish guy’s musings. “Let’s hear it for the rugelach,” he told the crowd after dessert and before Midler came on.

“Isn’t this a beautiful place, oh my God, I’m so proud for you, so happy for you, the National Museum of American Jewish History, mazel tov, mazel tov, this is like the jubilee of Jews here tonight,” Midler said in her trademark breathless fashion at the start of her set. “I’m proud to be singing here before my tribe.”

Then as Streisand looked on, she launched into a parody of “People”: “People/I’m here with my people/the most heymishe people in the world…”

Dressed in black chock full with sequins, her cropped hair curly and blond, Midler launched into a concert of songs by Jewish composers and lyricists. At the end, she turned her attention to the museum: “I didn’t get to go through the whole thing,” Midler said. “The little bit that I saw was extraordinary.”

The next morning on Independence Mall, a few yards away from the glitz of the previous night, Vice President Joe Biden told a more subdued but no less celebratory crowd that the stories in the museum — narratives of struggle and success and, sometimes, abject failure — demonstrated “the way Americans are mending this bell,” a reference to the cracked Liberty Bell on the same expanse where more than 2,000 people sat listening.

Howard Shapiro is a Philadelphia Inquirer theater critic who also writes about travel.

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