Virtual Bookshelf: Jewish-American Heritage Month

Broome Street 1942
Photo caption

Window of a Jewish religious shop on Broome Street, New York City, 1942

(May 25, 2021)

During the month of May the United States celebrates Jewish-American Heritage Month, honoring the generations of Jewish Americans who, in the words of President Biden’s proclamation, “have inextricably woven their experience and their accomplishments into the fabric of our national identity.” NEH joins the Biden-Harris administration in condemning antisemitism and recent attacks on the American Jewish community. Below is a selection of NEH-supported projects on the Jewish-American experience:

Capital Jewish Museum
NEH is a major supporter of the planned Capital Jewish Museum currently under construction in Washington, D.C. An NEH Infrastructure & Capacity Building Challenge Grant helped make possible the relocation and renovation of a historic synagogue that was dedicated in 1876 in the presence of President Ulysses S. Grant. The synagogue will be incorporated as part of a new 30,000-square-foot museum focusing on the past, present, and future of Jewish Washington and its interconnectedness with other D.C. communities.

American Jewish Historical Society
In 2020, the American Jewish Historical Society received an NEH CARES grant to retain staff members during the pandemic to present live-streamed programs, with the society’s archivists and historians, focusing on items from the AJHS archives. View recorded “Live from the Archives” programs on the American Jews who fought in World War II, Yom Kippur & America’s Greatest Pastime, and Emma Lazarus’s Red Manuscript. The American Jewish Historical Society also received NEH support for the ongoing exhibition From Sitting Room to Soap Box: Emma Lazarus, Union Square & American Identity, on the life and work of poet and activist Emma Lazarus, as well as a grant to preserve and digitize 91 volumes documenting the work of the People’s Relief Committee for Jewish War Sufferers (1915–1924), an American Jewish organization that sought to help Jewish communities and individuals in Europe during and after World War I.

Yiddish Book Center
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the center is using an NEH grant to mount Yiddish: A Global Culture, the first permanent exhibit exploring the extraordinary range of literature, theater and music created in Yiddish since the late 19th century. NEH also provided funding for the center’s Wexler Oral History Project, a collection of video interviews with more than 700 people—writers and musicians, scholars and students, native Yiddish speakers and cultural activists —about their family histories, involvement with Yiddish language and culture, Jewish identity, and the transmission of culture and values across generations and communities. Watch a video from the Wexler collection entitled “How Big Government Saved Yiddish Culture,” an interview with Zachary Baker, curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford University, about the role of NEH funding in maintaining and expanding the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the foremost archives and library on the history and culture of East European Jewry worldwide. The Yiddish Book Center also received a 2020 NEH CARES grant to present free weekly virtual public programs on Yiddish literature and culture.

St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center
An NEH Infrastructure & Capacity Building Challenge Grant is supporting the renovation and expansion of the current museum to accommodate new multimedia exhibits, community programs and events, and archive space to preserve more than 12,000 artifacts. The new museum, which is expected to open in 2022, will include a Center for Positive Change to connect the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s local, national, and global challenges; a Learning Center offering expanded educational programming and films and lectures by survivors and scholars; and an environmentally-controlled Archives and Research Center to house the museum’s collection of artifacts related to the Holocaust.

GI JEWS: Jewish Americans in World War II 
The 2018 NEH-funded documentary GI JEWS: Jewish Americans in World War II tells the profound and unique story of the 550,000 Jewish men and women who served in World War II. These brave men and women fought for their nation and their people, for America and for Jews worldwide. Like all Americans, they fought against fascism, but they also waged a more personal fight—to save their brethren in Europe. 

Judaism in America
This episode of the NEH-funded podcast BackStory explores the history of Judaism in America, featuring stories about George Washington’s visit to a Rhode Island Jewish community, the Cincinnati Jewish leaders who popularized Hanukkah celebrations in the U.S., and the rise in anti-Semitism that accompanied the highly publicized 1913 murder trial and subsequent lynching of Jewish-American factory superintendent Leo Frank.

Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917): The Life of a Confederate, Expatriate, Jewish Sculptor
Supported by an NEH Fellowship, scholar Samantha Baskind at Cleveland State University is writing a biography of Jewish American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844–1917), best known for creating the 25-foot tall monument to Religious Liberty in Philadelphia, and the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Jewish Americans 
The NEH-supported 2008 documentary The Jewish Americans chronicles 350 years of Jewish-American history, from the first settlement of Jews in America in the 17th century to the present. The three-part series explores the experience of immigration and assimilation, featuring both Jewish Americans who have made significant contributions to American life—from Louis D. Brandeis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Henry Morgenthau, Hank Greenberg, Betty Friedan, Molly Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, and Tony Kushner—as well as the stories of Jewish American tailors and shopkeepers, soldiers and bankers, peddlers and merchants, labor organizers and civil rights activists, all of whom helped shape the American landscape.

National Museum of American Jewish History
NEH grants have supported several exhibitions at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, including, most recently, Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, the first large-scale museum exhibition examining Bernstein’s life, Jewish identity, and social activism. The exhibition explores his Jewish identity and social activism in the context of his position as an American conductor and his works as a composer. View the virtual exhibit here. NEH also provided funding for 1917: How One Year Changed the World, which examines how three key events of 1917—America’s entry into World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, in which Great Britain indicated support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine—brought about political, cultural, and social changes that dramatically reshaped the United States’s role in the world. Take a virtual tour of the NMAJH’s NEH-funded Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American, the first large-scale exhibition to weave together the history of American sport, leisure, and national identity with the history of Jewish integration into American life.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland
Grant funding from NEH to the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in Baltimore, has supported numerous exhibitions at the museum focusing on Jewish American history, culture, identity, and traditions. Recent NEH-supported exhibitions include Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling, examining the evolution of the scrap industry in America over 250 years through the stories of the people who created it; Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America, focusing on the intersection of science, history, culture, and identity; and Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity, on Jewish-American foodways.

Privilege and Prejudice: Jewish History in the American South
In 2019 the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston in South Carolina welcomed 25 scholars to campus for an intensive two-week NEH summer institute on the history of Jews in the American South. Participants researched topics related to Jewish migration, the role Jews have played in American economic and political life, and interactions between southern Jews and their Christian neighbors.

The Rosenwald Schools of North and South Carolina
An NEH grant to Longleaf Productions is supporting production of two short documentaries on the Rosenwald Schools, the result of the friendship and collaboration between famed educator Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck. Their school construction scheme built nearly 5,000 schools across the South, circumventing Jim Crow’s efforts to deny education to Black youth. The thirty-minute films will explore the unique histories of the Rosenwald Schools in the Carolinas.

Seattle’s Sephardic Legacies
An NEH Common Heritage grant supported community digitization days in Seattle to digitize materials held by local community members, such as photographs, letters, marriage certificates, recipes, travel documents, memoirs, and other items documenting the culture and heritage of Ladino communities of the Pacific Northwest, to be made available through the Sephardic Studies Digital Archive at the University of Washington. Digitization events were accompanied by public lectures and programs by humanities scholars on the little-known history of the Sephardic community in Seattle during the Great Depression and the lasting contributions of this demographic to the city’s industrial and cultural landscape.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum
NEH has been instrumental in the development of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum since its founding in 1988. The museum, housed in two former New York City tenement buildings, examines the immigrant experience in New York’s Lower East Side through exhibitions and research on the lives of the estimated 15,000 people from over 20 nations who lived in the buildings between 1836 and 2011. Among the many Tenement Museum programs and exhibitions supported by NEH grants are the restoration of a space inhabited in the 1950s by the Epstein family, Holocaust survivors who immigrated from a displaced persons camp in Germany to the U.S. in 1947, and a Shop Life exhibition featuring recreations of the 1890s home of a kosher butcher, Israel Lustgarten, and a 1930s wholesale goods auction house ran by Romanian-Jewish immigrant Max Marcus. In 2020, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum received an NEH CARES grant to retain museum staff to conduct research, expand the museum’s walking tours of the Lower East Side, and develop a new exhibit.

Preserving the Records of the Jewish Federations of North America
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati received an NEH Infrastructure & Capacity Building Challenge grant to construct a new special collections facility to house the records of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). With roots dating to the 30s, the JFNA provides fundraising assistance, leadership support, and coordination for 146 Jewish federations, and Jewish communities more generally, throughout the United States and Canada. Millions of historic JFNA records, recently donated to Hebrew Union College, document post-1930 Jewish life in the United States, including Jewish American philanthropy, the resettlement of Jewish refugees in the 20th century, and the relationship between Jewish diaspora and the nation of Israel.

Diary from the Ashes
An NEH grant is supporting work on a documentary on the life of Rywka Lipszyc, a 14-year-old Jewish Polish girl whose diary was discovered in the rubble of the Auschwitz crematorium in 1945. Brought to light in 2008 by the granddaughter of the Red Army medic who discovered it, the diary documents Lipszyc’s life as a Jewish girl in the Lodz Ghetto during the Third Reich. The forthcoming documentary will bring to life the writings of the resilient teenager who used her imagination to cope with the unimaginable.

Center for Jewish History
NEH Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions grants to the Center for Jewish History in New York support cutting-edge research in the rich collections of the Center’s partners—the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. More than 150 humanities scholars at various stages of their careers and research projects have taken up residence at the center and profited from opportunities to share their work with leading scholars in their fields. Support from the National Endowment for the Humanities has been critical in helping to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars. 

EDSITEment
NEH’s educational website, EDSITEment, offers classroom resources for teaching Jewish-American Heritage Month, with links to films, curricula, and primary sources on famous Jewish Americans and Judaism in the United States.
 

Blog Posts: 

Rx for the Humanities
Voices from the Shtetl: The Yiddish Memories Project
Q&A with NEH Awards for Faculty Author Mikhal Dekel

 

Humanities Magazine Articles 

Jewish Pioneers
Getting to the Roots of Jewish Comedy
A Jewish Veteran Becomes One of Baltimore’s Early Globetrotters
Documents of Yiddish Life
Chicken Soup and Other Remedies
Sunday Filmmakers
The Trial of Hannah Arendt
Golem Revival
The Critical Moment
Irena Sendler and the Girls from Kansas

Media Contacts:
NEH Communications: | media@neh.gov