Exhibit marks 350 years of Jews in America

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 — A colonial etrog container that started life as a mustard pot. An 1883 “treif menu” from the banquet marking the graduation of rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. A poster from the “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread” ad campaign. Those are some of the more offbeat of the 150 items on display in “From Haven to Home: A Library of Congress Exhibition Marking 350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” which was slated to open at the library on Sept. 9. “The exhibit celebrates an important milestone in American Jewish and American history,” the arrival of 23 Jews from Brazil in New Amsterdam in 1654, says curator Michael W. Grunberger, head of the library’s Hebraic section. “We also want to make our collection of American Judaica better known.” In addition to items of “Judaica Americana” from the library’s collections, the exhibit features pieces on loan from partner institutions on the congressionally recognized Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History, including the National Archives and Records Administration, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. The etrog container, from the historical society, illustrates how Jews adapted to their new life in the New World, explains Grunberger, whose extensive curating experience at the Library of Congress includes the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in 1993, “From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress” in 1991 and “Israel at 50″ in 1998. The treif menu from the American Jewish Archives, which led to many guests walking out of the 1883 banquet, didn’t cause fissures in the Jewish community but was emblematic of them, the curator says. The Levy’s Rye Bread poster, from the Library of Congress collection, was an effective ad campaign that is still remembered. Although the exhibit is not put together specifically with Jewish visitors in mind, Grunberger recognizes that many Jews will want to see it. Those who come will see an interesting account of how a diverse group of immigrants “made the U.S. their home,” he says. Pamela Nadell, professor of history and director of the Jewish studies program at American University and a historical consultant to the exhibit, says it will have a great educational value. “To see this exhibit displayed in a space that so many visitors walk through is remarkable,” says Nadell, who contributed a chapter on America’s Jewish women to the exhibition’s companion book, “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” edited by Grunberger. “The library has some extraordinary documents. For example, Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ in his hand.” Seeing Berlin’s document along with a film of people singing that song “connects American Jewish history and American history,” she says. She sees the upcoming exhibition as a great opportunity to tell that story to anyone coming into building. Grunberger points to other well-known American Jews whose works make an appearance in the exhibit. Visitors will see Emma Lazarus’ handwritten copy of “The New Colossus,” the poem whose words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Also on view will be Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, hand-written in a document for the Library of Congress during World War II to raise money for war bonds; Hannah Arendt’s travel papers, which the philosopher used in lieu of a passport when she was stateless and a letter written by conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein to his parents in 1948, while he traveled to Israel to entertain during the War of Independence. Bernstein wrote that “if my present mood keeps up, I see my future as very close to the future of Israel. I can do so much here, and it’s the most important of all.” Also on display will be a quotation from author Philip Roth about his father — “the real work, the invisible huge job that he did all his life, that his whole generation of Jews did, was making themselves American. Europe stopped with him.” The curator also points to the following historical documents on display as highlights of the exhibit: • The letter from the Newport Hebrew Congregation to George Washington and the first president’s response, containing the famous phrase that the United States “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance”; • Thomas Jefferson’s 1818 letter to Mordecai M. Noah, in which the former president cautions that “more remains to be done, for altho’ we are free by the law, we are not so in practice”; • The “Riegner Telegram,” which alerted Rabbi Stephen Wise in August 1942 of the Nazi plan to murder with poison gas all the Jews in occupied Europe; • The May 14, 1948, note from President Harry S. Truman recognizing the state of Israel, with the president’s handwritten corrections. The exhibition includes a section on anti-Semitism in the United States, Grunberger says, featuring a note in President Abraham Lincoln’s hand expressing his intention to rescind Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11 banning Jews from areas of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. The curator notes that the exhibit also celebrates the arrival of the Jews in 1654 with an early map of Recife, Brazil, the area from which they came, fleeing the Inquisition. That “Prelude” section also highlights Jewish connections with America with a book of Psalms published in Genoa in 1516 that mentions Christopher Columbus in a commentary and another published in Venice in 1586 with the first map of America in a Hebrew-language book. “From Haven to Home: A Library of Congress Exhibition Marking 350 Years of Jewish Life in America” will open on Sept. 9 in the Northwest Gallery of the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. On view through Dec. 18, the exhibition is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday.

NEXT STORY