By Dawn’s Ear­ly Light

Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Art Museum
  • Review
By – August 17, 2016

Graced by its cov­er, an oil por­trait of win­some self-assured Rebec­ca Gratz, by Thomas Sul­ly in 1831, this exhi­bi­tion cat­a­log-cum-text­book is fine­ly pre­sent­ed, with thir­teen expos­i­to­ry essays by schol­ars, his­to­ri­ans, and lead­ing fig­ures in aca­d­e­m­ic arts and human­i­ties. Based on the per­son­al col­lec­tion of Mr. Leonard L. Mil­berg, Class of 1953, it com­bines his present col­lec­tion of ear­ly Amer­i­can Judaica with mate­ri­als in the Prince­ton library’s Leonard L. Mil­berg Col­lec­tion of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Writers.

The open­ing essay is by Dr. Jonathan D. Sar­na, respon­si­ble for many pio­neer­ing stud­ies of ante­bel­lum Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture. In 2005, he won the Jew­ish Book Council’s Jew­ish Book of the Year award. In his con­clud­ing essay, he reminds read­ers that in the late 1840s, Jews were less than one per­cent of the Amer­i­can population.

Nev­er­the­less, the edu­ca­tion­al her­itage of the States, New Eng­land Puri­tans in par­tic­u­lar, posit­ed the new Israelites as essen­tial to the non-sec­tar­i­an major­i­ty. Jews pro­vid­ed a mod­el for the evolv­ing New World his­to­ry, a nation­al call­ing of the Jews” to all Amer­i­cans. In 1772, a Jew­ish con­vert joined the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty fac­ul­ty (71 years after the Uni­ver­si­ty was found­ed) teach­ing its required course in Hebrew, “ a prim­i­tive tongue”, an illus­tra­tion of a 1735 text­book adver­tise­ment. The sec­tion on colo­nial Amer­i­ca out­lines the shift­ing bor­ders of the Sephar­di pop­u­la­tion as it min­gled with the Amer­i­can Protes­tant majority.

Yid­dishists will be pleased by The First Tru­ly Amer­i­can Jew”, by Meir Solove­ichik, which repro­duces a let­ter to Hol­land, writ­ten by Jonas Phillips in 1776, describ­ing events in Philadel­phia. Writ­ten in Yid­dish, it enclosed a copy of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, and judged unde­ci­pher­able or in a colonist’s code. Brought to Eng­land, it lan­guished in the Pub­lic Records office. Now it is in the Nation­al Archives in Lon­don. Jonas Phillips mar­ried Rebec­ca Mendes Macha­do, daugh­ter of the rab­bi at Con­gre­ga­tion Shearith Israel in New York and he fig­ures promi­nent­ly in ear­ly Philadelphia/​New York Jew­ish history.

Essay­ist Kar­la Gold­man exam­ines the ongo­ing efforts of refine­ment “….to adapt a tra­di­tion­al reli­gious cul­ture to the Amer­i­can envi­ron­ment.” She sees the Amer­i­can-Jew­ish press as sem­i­nal to both denom­i­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions and congregations.

Chap­ters cov­er con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry — the found­ing peri­od, ante­bel­lum immi­gra­tion, ear­ly Amer­i­can Judaism, the press, med­i­cine, women writ­ers, music, artists and lead­ing fig­ures, and sub­ver­sives. The cat­a­logue and adden­da filled with por­traits and doc­u­ments exceed 100 pages in this unusu­al publication.

Relat­ed Content:

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

Discussion Questions