Exhibition | The First Jewish Americans
Suriname map, 1718. Nieuwe Kaart van Suriname vertonende de stromen en land-streken van Suriname, Comowini, Cottica, en Marawini; Amsterdam, 1718 (Collection of Leonard L. Milberg).
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Closing on Sunday at the New-York Historical Society (the exhibition was shown at Princeton in 2016 under the title By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War); from the press release:
The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World
Princeton University Art Museum, 13 February — 12 June 2016
New-York Historical Society, 28 October 2016 — 12 March 2017
How did Jewish settlers come to inhabit—and change—the New World? Jews in colonial America and the young United States, while only a tiny fraction of the population, significantly negotiated the freedoms offered by the new nation and contributed to the flowering of American culture. The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World follows the trajectory of a people forced from their ancestral lands in Europe, as well as their homes in South America and the Caribbean, to their controversial arrival in New Amsterdam in 1654 to the unprecedented political freedoms they gained in early 19th-century New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In this ground-breaking exhibition, rare portraits, drawings, maps, documents, and ritual objects illuminate how 18th- and 19th-century artists, writers, activists, and more adopted American ideals while struggling to remain distinct and socially cohesive amidst the birth of a new Jewish American tradition.
The exhibition explores the origins of the Jewish diaspora and paths to the New World, Jewish life in American port cities, and the birth of American Judaism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as profile prominent Jewish Americans who made an impact on early American life.
European Jews fleeing persecution and seeking ports of refuge were propelled westward to the distant shores of New World colonies, which offered hope for a new beginning until the infamous Holy Inquisition followed them across the ocean. The exhibition powerfully illustrates this experience through the 1595 autobiography of Luis de Carvajal, a ‘converso’ Jew in Mexico and the nephew of a prominent governor, who was tried by the Inquisition and denounced more than 120 other secretly practicing Jews before he was burned at the stake in 1596. The recently rediscovered documents, which had gone missing from the National Archives of Mexico more than 75 years ago, will be on view at New-York Historical by special arrangement with the Mexican government before returning to Mexico.
The Jewish community in the New World dispersed throughout the colonies in the Caribbean, creating a network built on trade, family, and religious connections. Examples of these island communities and influences featured in the exhibition include a 1718 map of the Jewish settlement in Suriname, 18th-century texts of religious services for the circumcision of slaves, and Jamaican legal documents from 1823 that argued for Jewish voting rights.
During the colonial period, Jews clustered in the cosmopolitan and commercially minded port cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, and within each city, an elaborate communal infrastructure grew that supported all aspects of Jewish life. Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in colonial North America, built its home in Lower Manhattan in 1730. The congregation has loaned significant objects to the exhibition, such as a Torah scroll that was burned by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and a rare set of Torah bells (or rimonim) designed by Myer Myers—one of colonial America’s preeminent silversmiths and an active congregation member. Also on view are six oil paintings circa 1735 of the prominent Levy-Franks family of New York, also members of the congregation. On loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, they emulate paintings of the British aristocracy.
The Philadelphia Jewish community grew during and after the Revolutionary War, with the city serving as a refuge for patriots fleeing British-occupied New York. Some Philadelphia Jews opposed Britain’s harsh restrictions on American trade by signing the Resolution of Non-Importation made by the Citizens of Philadelphia in 1765—one of the first official protests against British mercantile policy, which is on view in the exhibit. Also featured are portrait paintings of Philadelphia merchant Barnard Gratz, a signer of the resolution who supplied American militias; and of his niece Rebecca Gratz, who in 1819 established the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first Jewish lay charity in the country.
In the first decades of the 19th century, Charleston was home to more Jews than any other place in North America and became a site of cultural and religious ferment. Congregation K.K. Beth Elohim—whose elegant synagogue is depicted in an 1838 oil painting on view—was the birthplace of the Reform movement in 1824, when a group of 47 members petitioned to make worship more accessible by introducing innovations that included prayers in English. The leadership refused, so the petitioners seceded and established the Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit. The exhibition features the group’s 1825 prayer book and speeches promoting their initially radical position, which soon became main stream. Also on view are earlier examples of revolutions in American Judaism, such as an English translation of a Hebrew prayer book from 1766, Samuel Johnson’s English and Hebrew Grammar book from 1771, and a lunar calendar of Jewish festivals and Sabbath observance from 1806.
The exhibition also features profiles of prominent Jewish Americans of the 18th and early 19th centuries, whose writing, activism, and artistic achievements provide a window into an era of cultural vitality and change in the new Republic. Among the highlighted figures are renown artist Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), a Caribbean Jew born in St. Thomas whose 1856 landscape paintings on view capture waterfront scenes of his island home; and Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1860), a New Orleans-born piano prodigy and composer who became the first classically trained American pianist to achieve international fame. Science and medicine were remarkably open to Jewish men during the 19th century. On display are books written by Jewish Americans that made major contributions to American science and medicine as those fields were developing during this period. The exhibition concludes with views of newly flourishing cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and San Francisco that became home to American Jews as they ventured westward.
The exhibit is based primarily upon loans from the Princeton University Jewish American Collection, gift of Mr. Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953, and Mr. Leonard L. Milberg’s personal collection.
Adam Mendelsohn, By Dawn’s Early: Light Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Library, 2016), 352 pages, ISBN: 978 08781 10593.
Terrific installation photographs are available at Arts Summary.