Yo, Adrian, how ‘bout a tour of Jewish Philly?
Philadelphia is known in the popular imagination for several things — “Rocky,” the world champion Eagles, Philly cheesesteaks, Benjamin Franklin and the city’s pivotal role in the American Revolution.
On the surface, none of those things have anything to do with Jews or Judaism. But if you look a little closer, things in Philly have always been a bit more Jewish than you might’ve initially thought.
Sly Stallone’s first “Rocky” movie in 1976 was produced by two Jewish guys, Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. The Eagles’ owner, Jeffrey Lurie, is Jewish, as is the team’s general manager, Howie Roseman, and the current manager of the Phillies, Gabe Kapler.
In 2009, someone in the City of Brotherly Love created the first-ever kosher-for-Passover Philly cheesesteak. Most historians doubt the allegations that Ben Franklin was an anti-Semite, while others say that the Founding Father wanted the Great Seal of the United States to feature Moses parting the Red Sea.
As for the Revolution? Well, it turns out there were a whole lot of Jews around Philly back then. And even, it turns out, before that.
The first Jews arrived in Baltimore’s neighbor to the north around the time of William Penn’s arrival in the 17th century. In the centuries since, Philadelphia has thrived as one of America’s most Jewish towns.
According to the 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia, an estimated 214,700 Jews live in the Philly metropolitan area. Philadelphia is also the home of Gratz College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as well as the most synagogues per capita in the country.
So whether you’re looking to visit a museum, eat some traditional deli food, sample world-class Israeli cuisine or check out a famous shul, there’s always something Jewish to do in Philly.
Here are some places you don’t want to miss:
Zahav (237 St. James Place). One of the nation’s most acclaimed restaurants is an Israeli-American eatery from celebrated chef Michael Solomonov. Celebrating its 10th birthday this year, Zahav does some truly magical things with hummus, but its signature dish is the lamb shoulder. Speaking of hummus, Solomonov opened a second Philadelphia eatery, the “hummusiya” known as Dizengoff (1625 Sansom St.) in 2014.
The National Museum of American Jewish History (101 S. Independence Mall East). Located in Philly’s Old City near the Liberty Bell and several other significant historical sites, the museum was founded in 1976 but relocated to its current building in 2010. The museum offers year-round programming, and its core exhibit focuses on the connection between the freedoms of America and the Jewish tradition. It also features limited exhibits; “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” will run through September.
Congregation Mikveh Israel (44 N. 4th St.). This Old City shul, which describes itself as “the Synagogue of the American Revolution,” represents a congregation that’s older than the U.S. itself, having been founded in 1740, making it the oldest continuous synagogue in the nation. The current building, though, only dates back to 1976.
Speaking of older shuls, Rodeph Shalom (615 N. Broad St.) calls itself the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, tracing its founding back to 1795 (Mikveh Israel is more Sephardic-oriented.) A Reform synagogue since the 19th century, Rodeph has been in its current location since 1871. And besides being one of the more beautiful synagogues in the region, Rodeph doubles as home of the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, which features both a permanent art collection and temporary solo and group exhibitions. “Passages from Dark to Light,” by Bucks County artist Reena Milner Brooks, is running currently.
The Philadelphia region is blessed with numerous Jewish-style delis, whether traditional or not. There’s Schlesinger’s in Center City (1521 Locust St.); Abe Fisher, another Solomonov joint (1623 Sansom St.); and the nearby suburban spots Hymie’s Merion Deli (342 Montgomery Ave. in Merion Station) and Murray’s (285 Montgomery Ave. in Bala Cynwyd). But the largely undisputed king is Famous 4th Street Deli (700 S. 4th St.), which offers an old-fashioned deli ambience and some of the largest sandwiches you’ve ever seen. If you go to eat there, you’ll almost certainly take the next day’s lunch home with you.
If you’re looking for a full-on kosher meal experience, Judah Mediterranean Grill (9311 Krewstown Road) in the city’s Bustleton section is among Philly’s most highly regarded. This BYOB bistro has been praised for its wraps and kebabs, as well as salads that are said to rival those of Zahav.
We were going to suggest the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, which was formerly located at the Gershman Y on South Broad Street. But the building closed this year, with the organization refocusing as the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. The festival, though, runs screenings year-round, while the Jewish Sports Hall is looking for a new home.
And finally, if you’re looking for a physical walking tour of Philadelphia’s Jewish sites, try out Philly Maven Jewish History Tours, in which guide Jon Stone takes groups around the Old City and Society Hill, to teach audiences about the Colonial and Revolutionary-era Jewish communities. (Call 203-815-7753)
Stephen Silver is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.