Old Cleveland gets swank new home

cleveland | Cleveland, the birthplace of Superman and home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just got something Jewish to kvell about.

Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland illuminates Jewish history from Shaker Heights to the world at large, giving visitors a sense of scale to early Jewish life in Ohio.

Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, the primary funders of the museum, were honored guests at the Oct. 11 opening. “Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” says Maltz.

The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot building, which is faced in Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, temporary exhibits fill the remaining rooms and alcoves.

The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images, including photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native. Superimposed over these is a multileveled timeline showing the history of the Jews from Abraham onward.

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 in Cleveland in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.

“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works, and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.

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.

More information about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage is available at www.MaltzJewishMuseum.org.