This, then, is the museum's distinctive mission, one that sets it apart from other Holocaust museums but also complicates and diffuses its impact.
The $21.5 million museum in Battery Park City is itself the product of a troubled 50-year history of financial and political reversals. The site was originally intended for a memorial, rather than a museum. And museum planners once eyed a different site, the Beaux Arts-style Federal Customs House in lower Manhattan, which was eventually rejected as too ornate. Washington was awarded the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993. Fund-raising was further hurt by the 1987 stock-market crash and plummeting New York real estate prices.
Finally, just days before its opening last month, the nascent institution became the target of a lawsuit by a group of Orthodox rabbis, who objected to its cursory mentions of Nazi persecution of homosexuals. That suit is still pending.
Once envisioned as a $90 million, 125,000-square-foot structure, the Museum of Jewish Heritage is now a compact, scaled-down version of its founders' dreams. The six-sided, gray granite building, designed by Kevin Roche and already compared somewhat disdainfully to a mausoleum, lacks an auditorium, classroom space, a cafe, pay phones and other typical museum amenities (though it does include a small, sparsely stocked gift shop).
Instead, it devotes nearly all of its 30,000 square feet to a core exhibition with three sections, each occupying a single floor: ``Jewish Life a Century Ago,'' ``The War Against the Jews'' and ``Jewish Renewal.'' In each section, the exhibition stresses hope, heroism and the living legacy of Judaism - messages intended to offset, at least partially, the horrors of the Holocaust and to convey a more nuanced portrait of modern Jewish life.
This emphasis arises from a number of sources, including the 1986 appointment as museum director of David Altshuler, a specialist in ancient Jewish history and what he calls ``the ways Jews understand themselves,'' rather than in the Holocaust.
Altshuler, in a recent interview, also cited former New York Mayor Ed Koch's charge that he wanted ``a living memorial'' - not a monument, but ``a place for public education.''
``It was apparent to a number of us,'' the director said, ``that `living memorial' could mean something else, too - which is a place where you memorialize those who were murdered by focusing not only on how they were murdered, but especially on how they lived, how they struggled to survive, and how their legacy . . . their community, lived on.''
``Jews have been thinking this way for thousands of years,'' Altshuler added.
The result - an ambitious yoking together of the celebratory ritual objects and themes typically found in Jewish heritage museums with a well-told Holocaust narrative - is one of the museum's principal innovations. The other is its extraordinarily skillful use of the video testimony of survivors, as well as rescuers and others, as a counterpoint to the grim photographic images and artifactual wreckage of the Holocaust.
Alongside Nazi propaganda, for example, we hear the poignant reminiscences of a German Jew who watched his playmates turn virtually overnight into pint-sized anti-Semites. And, in addition to the familiar recounting of ghetto and concentration camp horrors, we hear about survival strategies: how one starving man dreamt every night of hamburgers, while another retained hope by denying the reality of mass murder. ``We were 30 meters from gas chambers,'' he tells us, ``and we did not believe it,'' a revelation that suddenly makes more understandable the denial of so many others further removed from the inferno.
Testimony such as this - much of it amassed by the museum to supply context for its collections and some culled from Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation - is reason enough to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The exhibition also features some 800 artifacts, many of them compelling: the trumpet, displayed like a sacred object, that saved musician Louis Bannet's life in Auschwitz-Birkenau; the Nazi board game resembling Chutes and Ladders in which the goal is to deport Jews; the intricate wire and bead creations of prisoner Genia Blumberg, and hundreds of other reminders of the complexity of the Holocaust story.
While rich in good intentions, the museum contains some disappointments. Apart from its videos, it is somewhat old-fashioned and derivative in design and presentation. Its efforts to cram so much information into such a small space - particularly on the Holocaust floor - may trigger emotional and intellectual exhaustion. By contrast, its story line on the first and third floors seems diffuse and insufficiently elaborated. Altshuler suggests that the eventual availability of audiotape tours, of varying lengths, will help visitors focus their time better.
Its deliberate differences notwithstanding, the museum labors under the shadow of other U.S. Holocaust museums, to which it inevitably will be compared.
It fails, for example, to match the brilliance of its more expensive Washington counterpart, in which architecture and design both metaphorically evoke elements of the Holocaust. The New York museum is also less interesting museologically than Los Angeles' Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance, whose use of high-tech gadgetry and immersing theatrical techniques remains cutting-edge.
More problematic than the New York museum's traditional presentation, which may work well for older audiences, is the vagueness of the narrative it presents to contextualize the Holocaust.
The first section, for example, is more thematic than historical. It explains Judaism primarily in terms of its rituals, institutions and social activism, and contains little that will strike most Jews as new or surprising. Others may find this floor a useful, if broad, introduction to Jewish religion and culture.
There are some remarkable objects here as well. One is arguably the museum's most extraordinary find: a huge, intricately hand-painted and lettered sukkah, or ritual shelter, that survived the Holocaust hidden in a synagogue basement in Budapest. An accompanying video features relatives of Aryeh Steinberger, its creator, talking about its continuing meaning in their lives.
The second artifact - the first in the museum - is tiny: a 1892 card in which Meyer Kamenetzky of Waterbury, Conn., apologizing for the ``peculiarity of our name,'' announces that he has changed it to Kamen. Arresting for its honesty, it also introduces the theme of naming, and its power, that will resonate throughout the museum. On the second floor, for example, visitors see a Nazi-era book that lists common Jewish names (published as a tool for picking out Jews), and are reminded that Jews in Germany were later required to take the names Israel and Sara.
The museum's third floor, on Jewish renewal, is its least successful. A single set of display cases skims over the entire history of Jewish settlement in the United States, a topic easily worthy of its own museum. A second set attempts a similarly unsatisfying condensation of Jewish life in Israel. A chronological approach then cedes to a thematic one, with sections on religion, social activism and Jewish contributions to world (mostly American) culture.
The museum's last displays are holographs evoking exhibits in the museum - a good check for those who swept through quickly. Afterwards, visitors enter a room whose windows offer views of the Status of Liberty and Ellis Island - reminders of America's promise to Jewish immigrants and others. The day I visited, the room's impact was blunted by its use as a reception hall, another unfortunate by-product of the museum's cramped quarters.
IF YOU GO * The Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust is located at 18 First Place, Battery Park City, New York. Hours are Sundays through Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Fridays and holiday eves, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Timed-admission tickets (available through Ticketmaster) are $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors. Information: 800-307-4007.