An exhibition at the Center for Jewish History, one of the world’s foremost centers for the intellectual and cultural exploration of the modern Jewish experience, will focus on the origins of American Jewish culture. From March 16 – June 1, 2014, By Dawn’s Early Light: The Contribution of Jews to American Culture from Washington’s Inauguration to the Civil War will present more than 140 objects including books, photographs, paintings, prints, political cartoons, sheet music, playbills, scripts, and correspondence. Most of the objects have never been on public view before. The exhibition is presented by the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) and Center for Jewish History.
For Jews, a tiny minority in the early Republic, freedom was both liberating and confounding. As individuals, they were free to participate as full citizens in the hurly-burly of the new nation’s political and social life. As members of a group that sought to remain distinctive, freedom was daunting. In response to the challenges of liberty, Jews adopted and adapted American cultural idioms to express themselves in new ways as both Americans and Jews. In the process, they contributed to the invention of American culture.
Among the highlights in Dawn’s Early Light: The Contribution of Jews to American Culture from Washington’s Inauguration to the Civil War will be a ledger with Benjamin Franklin’s name on a list of donors to Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia dating from 1788. Ten years later, responding to a call by President John Adams for a national day of fasting and prayer to avert a looming conflict with Britain and France, Rev. Gershom M. Seixas, the cantor of New York’s only synagogue, delivered a rousing call to action. The oration offers thanks to God for having “established us in this country where we possess every advantage that our citizens of the states enjoy” and beseeching divine intervention to rescue America from the threat of war.
A number of notable maps can be seen in the exhibition including a 1776 map of New York City by cartographer Bernard Ratzer, which identifies two Jewish landmarks in New York City: a synagogue and Jewish cemetery.
Uriah P. Levy, a senior officer in the American navy and an outspoken advocate of reducing corporal punishment for officers and enlisted men aboard ship, penned a pamphlet in 1849 in support of a campaign to reform the navy’s disciplinary practices. In part because of Levy’s efforts, the naval appropriations bill of 1850 outlawed flogging.
The founder of American ornithology, Alexander Wilson, traveled extensively in the United States to observe and record native birds in their natural habitat. Included in the exhibition is his book Wilson Bird Prints, 1829, which became the model for modern field guides. The book was edited by Isaac Hays, the first American-born Jewish physician of distinction, who also edited the leading English textbook on ophthalmology, and was one of the founders of the American Medical Association.
An important medical book by a physician David Nassy analyzes the causes and treatment of yellow fever in response to a devastating 1793 epidemic that struck Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital. More than one in ten of the residents died. Nassy instructs doctors to bleed and blister patients, supply emetics and purgatives, and apply emollient herbs. Despite this regimen – less harsh than others – only 19 of the 117 patients that Nassy treated at the height of the epidemic died.
By Dawn’s Early Light: The Contribution of Jews to American Culture from Washington’s Inauguration to the Civil War includes objects from the American Jewish Historical Society with additional materials on loan from The Philadelphia Library Company, Princeton University, and the private collection of Leonard Milberg.
BACKGROUND ON THE AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The American Jewish Historical Society provides access to more than 25 million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, art, and artifacts that reflect the history of the Jewish presence in the United States from 1654 to the present. Among the treasures of this heritage are the handwritten original of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, which graces the Statue of Liberty; records of the nation’s leading Jewish communal organizations and important collections in the fields of education, philanthropy, science, sports, business, and the arts. Founded in 1892, AJHS is the oldest national ethnic historical organization in the nation. AJHS is one of five partner organizations at The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan and has a branch in Boston.
BACKGROUND ON THE CENTER FOR JEWISH HISTORY
The Center for Jewish History is home to five partner organizations—American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research—whose collections total more than 500,000 volumes and 100 million documents, and include thousands of pieces of artwork, textiles, ritual objects, recordings, films, and photographs. Taken as a whole, the collections span more than 700 years of history and comprise the largest and most comprehensive repository of the modern Jewish experience in the world. The Center is also home to The David Berg Rare Book Room, the Lillian Goldman Reading Room, the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute, and the Collection Management & Conservation Wing. At the Center, the history of the Jewish people is illuminated through scholarship and cultural programming, exhibitions and symposia, lectures, and performances.