Opened in 2010 just a block south of Mikvah Israel, America's oldest synagogue in continuous use, this museum traces American history—from colonial times to today—though the lens of its Jewish inhabitants. And it's a long history. Joachim Gaunse, the first Jew to set foot on North American shores, arrived on Roanoke Island colony in 1585 (though he returned to England the following year).
First take a spin through the ground floor's "Only in America" exhibit, highlighting 18 notable American Jews though video and totemic personal objects: A Leonard Bernstein Grammy award, Isaac Singer's typewriter, Albert Einstein's pipe, a vial of vaccine from Jonas Salk's polio trials in 1954–55, Estée Lauder's day planner, the 1909 piano on which Irving Berlin composed his first hit show, and the kippah and tzitzit Barbra Streisand wore in "Yentl." My favorite is Steven Speilberg's very first 8mm camera, which he used to make an eight-minute western called "Last Gun" at the age of 13, successfully earning his Boy Scouts photography merit badge.
Then grab the elevator to the fourth floor to make the rounds of this exhaustively thorough exhibit in chronological order, starting with the earliest Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam and the establishment of communities in the trading ports of the Colonial world, from Newport (home to the oldest surviving synagogue in the U.S.) to Savannah and every major coastal city in between. You get a glimpse into the daily lives of merchants and shippers in the Colonies, homesteaders headed West, factory owners throwing charity Purim balls, slave traders, and Revolutionary War heroes.
In 1700 there were only 250 Jews in all the colonies (out of a population of 250,000). By 1850 there were 50,000 (in a U.S. population of 23 million). Within 30 years, that number had quintupled to 250,000. That number explodes on the third floor, which covers the mass immigration years of 1880–1945, when more than two million arrived, most from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, until the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act put a quota bottleneck on all new immigration.
This floor traces a more familiar story of historic Judaism in America, focusing variously on tenement living and Jewish business, the Yiddish-language newspaper "Forverts" and mutual aid societies, gangsters and the garment industry, the Reconstructionist movement and the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, the Holocaust from an American perspective and the efforts (or lack thereof) to rescue European Jews.
There's an interactive display where you sweat to answer correctly the questions posed by a virtual Ellis Island processing clerk, and videos showcasing the emergence (and identity-obscuring name changes) of Jewish actors and comedians on the national stage and in Hollywood.
The second floor lands us in even more familiar territory, covering post-War to today: the establishment of Israel, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, suburban flight, Borscht Belt Catskills resorts, civil rights and feminism, the Six Day War and Zionism, and the everyday experience of growing up Jewish in late 20th century America.
Be sure to leave big bags and pocket knives at home; they are not allowed through the metal detector at security.