By PEGGY PEARLSTEIN
With a national theme of "The American Jewish Experience: Celebrating Religious Pluralism, Cultural Diversity and Commitment to American Civic Culture," the Library of Congress celebrated the second annual Jewish American Heritage Month in May with public lectures and a new Web presentation.
In 1654, after Portugal recaptured Brazil and expelled its Jewish settlers, a group of 23 Jewish refugees arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York City) seeking a safe haven; they ultimately made a home for themselves and their descendants in the New World. In 2004, the 350th anniversary of this historic event was observed across the country. On the heels of this observance, the House and Senate passed resolutions and President George W. Bush proclaimed that, beginning in 2006, the nation would commemorate Jewish American Heritage Month in May.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who in 2005 became the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives, said, "The passage of this resolution in both houses of Congress shows the deep support that exists across this country for the formal recognition of the 350 years of enrichment that Jews have contributed to American culture."
The Library's extensive holdings include numerous items pertaining to Jewish history and Jewish Americans. Some of these items were featured in an exhibition titled "From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America," which is accessible online at www.loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/, and in a companion publication that can be ordered at www.loc.gov/shop/. (See Information Bulletin, September 2004.)
A Jewish American History Month Web site is accessible at www.jewishheritagemonth.gov. This Web portal is a collaborative project of the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Gallery of Art, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Library also sponsored several lectures in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
Zachary M. Baker, Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections, Stanford University Libraries, delivered the Eighth Annual Myron M. Weinstein Memorial Lecture on May 8. The lecture series honors Weinstein (1927–1998), whose entire 29-year tenure at the Library was spent in the Hebraic Section.
Baker's presentation, "A Bibliographer Encounters the Muses: Reflections on the Yiddish Theater and Its Legacy," drew on the Library's collection of Yiddish American play scripts and Yiddish American sheet music to illustrate the intersections of bibliography and public performance. He noted that institutions like the Library of Congress play a major role in the preservation of Jewish cultural expression, including the Yiddish theater. In remarks prefaced by an illustrated overview of the American Yiddish theater, Baker described the background for "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre," a 2005 performance under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony and grandson of legendary Yiddish actors Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. The contemporary musical creation, according to Baker, was a dynamic expression of the cultural legacy of the Yiddish theater. Baker's presentation can be viewed at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4079. The Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyrighted Yiddish Plays: An Annotated Bibliography is accessible at www.loc.gov/rr/amed/marwick/marwickbibliography.pdf. (PDF/1.69Mb)
Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff discussed and showed segments from her musical works in a May 17 audiovisual presentation titled "Composing the Holocaust." She discussed "Can Heaven Be Void?," her orchestral work based on the 1943 diary of her father, Baruch Milch, written while he was in hiding from the Nazis. Sheriff also discussed her opera titled "And the Rat Laughed," based on a novel with a similar title by the Israeli author Nava Semel. Both works have been performed to acclaim around the world.
Alan Kraut, a professor at American University, presented an illustrated lecture on May 22 titled "Jewish Bodies: Immigrant Encounters with American Medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries." The lecture was based on "Covenant of Care: Newark Beth Israel and the Jewish Hospital in America" (2007), which Kraut co-authored with his wife Deborah.
According to Kraut, in response to the large increase in immigration to the United States beginning in the middle of the 19th century, both Jews and Catholics began to build voluntary nonprofit hospitals to serve their poor immigrants and to address the specialized ritual needs of each religious group. The Jewish community was concerned that its immigrants not be a burden on the general society and that Jewish doctors be able to practice their profession without prejudice. Since it opened in 1902, the hospital has promoted a nonsectarian admissions policy and welcomed physicians and nurses who are denied employment elsewhere because of anti-Semitism. The story of "The Beth" as a charitable agent of social change chronicles the social and demographic transformations that occurred over a century. It offers insight into the challenges continually faced by all voluntary hospitals in this country.
Peggy Pearlstein is head of the Library's Hebraic Division.