- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Jewish bat rests on a ring of skulls, its lips smiling with blood from local merchants. Leon Barritt composed this drawing in 1898 to depict greed as a monster with Jewish features that nests on bones that represent small shops devoured by the big beast.

The drawing is one of about 200 artifacts on display at the Library of Congress’ new exhibit on the history of Jews in America, “From Haven to Home.”

The exhibit, which opened last week, marks the 350th anniversary of the first Jewish settlement in America, which began in the late summer of 1654, when 23 Jews arrived in the Dutch colony on Manhattan island after fleeing Portuguese rule in Brazil.

“We tell the story through the prisms of our collections,” curator Mike Grunberger said. “This is about the encounter of the Jewish community with freedom.”

The exhibit features treasures of Jewish-American history from the library such as rare colonial maps of New York, the first Hebrew Bible printed in the United States and the deed to the Statue of Liberty. Visitors can even see a family set of circumcision tools.

The display features pieces on loan from the National Archives and Records Administration, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

The exhibit starts with a hall of portraits. The visitor is greeted by the eyes of composer Leonard Bernstein and the smile of Miss America Bess Myerson.

The artifacts in “Haven” date back to the 1700s with pivotal documents that made the United States a refuge for many Jewish immigrants, but not yet a home. Persecution followed the Jews from the shores of Brazil to the port of New Amsterdam. The rooms begin with a letter from George Washington to the Newport Hebrew Congregation:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants,” Washington wrote in 1790.

The exhibit also tells the story of Jews in the Civil War, when — like their fellow Americans — they were divided by the North and South. Most of the country’s 150,000 Jews lived in the North and supported the Union, but about 25,000 remained in the South and allied with the Confederacy — among them Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, who served as the Confederate Secretary of War.

“Jews — like every community — had to take sides,” Mr. Grunberger said. Prejudice during the war culminated in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious Order No. 11. The order banned Jews as a class from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, the exhibit shows, that Jews fully entered the mainstream of American culture. By 1950, most American Jews were born in the United States. Visitors can see a Yiddish version of “The Cat in the Hat,” a poster of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and even a feminist Haggada.

“You see the mingling of traditional seder ritual and … American history, which is the story of America,” Mr. Grunberger said. “‘From Haven to Home’ is not unique to the Jews. This exhibit is intended for everyone, because it resonates with all Americans.”

Jeffrey Levine, a Jewish visitor from Minneapolis, agreed with the curator.

“It’s the story of America,” said Mr. Levine, whose own history includes relatives from Lithuania. “Whether Houdini or Einstein, it’s a shared experience.”

Mr. Levine said the exhibit brought a fresh look at the Jewish heritage.

“I can picture my [family] coming to Ellis Island through these pictures,” Mr. Levine said. “Here are the real documents. … I knew Houdini and Einstein were Jewish, but it’s another thing to see the original documents.”

Wendy Cohen, a Jewish teacher from Virginia, also came to see the Library of Congress exhibit.

“It’s controversial, because there are so many different ways to show adaptation,” said Ms. Cohen, whose mother came from Vienna, Austria, to the United States in 1938. “I have [the history] firsthand, but I was interested to see how [the library] decided to show it.”

The exhibit’s non-Jewish visitors were equally impressed. Rebecca Trainor from Boston said she wanted to see the display for its unique art.

“It sounded different from all other exhibits,” Miss Trainor said. “I’m familiar with Jewish history, but not the early-American documents. This reinforces the way Jewish culture became part of the fabric of American culture.”

From “Haven to Home” is free to the public, thanks to a grant from Bernard and Audre Rapoport through the Abby and Emily Rapoport Trust Fund in the Library of Congress. The exhibit will continue through Dec. 18 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday in the Northwest Gallery of the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

The exhibit ends with the famous lyrics of Russian-Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin: “God bless America, land that I love. … God bless America, my home sweet home.”

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