PHILADELPHIA — Isaac Bashevis Singer didn’t care much for the 1983 Barbra Streisand-starring film adaptation of his short story “Yentel the Yeshiva Boy.” The late Nobel Prize-winning author couldn’t picture a serious Talmud student breaking into song.
Many Jewish moviegoers, however, loved the Singer-Streisand pairing, which is one reason why they are two of the first 18 luminaries chosen for the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame.
The list also includes others in the arts and entertainment world (Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein and Steven Spielberg), as well as the cosmetics magnate Estee Lauder and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. Scientists Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk made the cut; so did Labor union leader Rose Schneiderman and Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and a leading Zionist.
Jewish communal giants also were represented, including four rabbis (Mordecai Kaplan, Isaac Leeser, Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Isaac Mayer Wise) and pioneering activists Emma Lazarus and Henrietta Szold. One Israeli prime minister also made the list: Golda Meir, who emigrated from Kiev to Milwaukee in 1906, and lived there for 15 years before leaving for Palestine.
The fact that a good number of the entries were born outside the United States highlights the centrality of the immigrant experience to Jewish American identity, according to Michael Rosenzweig, museum president and CEO. The gallery will be part of the museum’s core exhibition when it opens on Independence Mall in 2010.
Over the summer, the museum invited the public to vote online for 218 candidates; more than 209,000 votes were cast from 56 countries. Rosenzweig noted that the top eight vote-getters made the list, but the museum is not releasing the vote totals. Museum curators made the final decisions.
“This was never intended to be a popularity contest,” Rosenzweig said. “The 18 finalists represent a consensus between the public vote, and the museum’s historians and curatorial staff.”
The list of initial nominees drew criticism from JTA columnist Edmon Rodman, who noted the lack of any candidates from the worlds of food, toy making, invention and design.
Writing in the Forward, Rodman argued that “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.”
If one of your favorites is missing from the list, don’t give up hope. At some point, according to Rosenzweig, the museum will choose a different group of 18 Jewish Americans to be featured in the exhibit.