Hartford to host traveling exhibit detailing what America has meant to Jews – and vice versa
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – In 1654, 23 Jewish refugees – eight women, two men and 13 children – disembarked from a Dutch ship at the port of New Amsterdam in New York.
These Jews, refugees from Brazil, were among 220 Jews who in 1634 had left Amsterdam for the New World.
“In 1634, the Dutch conquered northwestern Brazil from the Portuguese, and the Jews who had fled to Amsterdam from England and from Spain, had an opportunity to go live in a land where they spoke the native language – Portuguese. And it seemed like an opportunity to expand Jewish trading relationships in Amsterdam,” explains Dr. Michael Feldberg, Ph.D., former executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society.
These Jews lived in Brazil happily until 1654 when the Portuguese once again conquered the area. The Dutch population – and the Jews – were given six months to leave, after which the Jews would be forcibly converted.
Only 23 Jews, left virtually penniless, boarded a Dutch ship called the St. Patrick.
“Perhaps it was meant to go back to Amsterdam, perhaps it was meant to go to Jamaica, perhaps it was meant to go to Puerto Rico. But it ended up somehow in the port of New Amsterdam in New York,” Feldberg says.
The story of these Jews, who ended up forming the first permanent Jewish settlement in America, is among the stories told as part of the traveling exhibit, “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” which will be on display June 28 through Sept. 24 at the Mandell JCC. The Hartford showing is sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.
Feldberg, now the executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, and the curator of “From Haven to Home,” will be guest speaker at the June 28 opening.
“From Haven to Home” was first created by the Library of Congress in 2004 in honor of the 350th anniversary of Jews in America, and included items from the Library’s collections, including original documents, photographs and other artifacts, as well as items from the New England Archives of the American Jewish Historical Society in Boston. The traveling exhibit came to fruition in 2005 and is a joint effort between the Library of Congress, the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Jewish Archives and the National Archives.
Besides sharing the history and the arrival of those first 23 Jews who sought refuge, the exhibit also traces the persecution, discrimination and legal barriers to their security and advancement that they experienced. It goes on to document the ways in which Jews made America their home and their numerous contributions to life in America.
“This is an immigrant story, not just a Jewish story,” says Estelle Kafer, director of the Jewish Historical Society. “It is important especially now with what is going on. Immigration is a hot topic. It is so important to be able to trace one immigrant group because it really is an important narrative for every immigrant group.”
“For the first time in history, the Library of Congress allowed another institution to make a copy of one of its exhibits for the purpose of creating a traveling exhibit,” Feldberg says. “This exhibit has now been travelling for 11 years,” Feldberg said. “It has been renewed, refreshed and updated a number of times. It has been everywhere from the Fashion Mart Mall in Las Vegas, to the Federation Court House in Boston, to the University of Idaho in Boise. It’s really been a lot of places, because of its transportability — and because the story stays fresh even though it was crafted for the 350th anniversary.”
“Haven to Home” features 16 canvas panels depicting not just the early New Amsterdam Jews, but the arrival of German Jews in the U.S. between the 1820s and 1850s, the influx of Eastern European Jews from the 1890s and 1920s, and the arrival of Jews seeking safety from the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. More recent Jewish populations, such as Jews from the former Soviet Union and Jews from Arab nations are also detailed, as well as the diverse American Jewish population of today.
The exhibit shares the chronological timeline of the Jewish story in America, as well as a deeper look at Jewish American history, including the Jews’ roles in politics, religion in the U.S., and the contribution of Jewish women.
Some of the items on display include a 1735 Hebrew grammar book-required for every Harvard College freshman at the time; an 1863 petition protesting General Ulysses S. Grant’s decision to expel all Jews from Kentucky and Tennessee during the Civil War; and a handwritten version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
“It’s an immigrant story, but it is also an assimilation story and it’s the American Dream,” Feldberg says. “Somehow an immigrant people who had come here seeking haven and seeking refuge finds a home and both assimilates and integrates into American life, but at the same time maintains portions of their unique identity.”
“The other thing to point out is that it is not as if America opened its arms to the Jews who came here,” Feldberg adds. “In many ways we are replicating for today’s newcomers the kind of experiences that we had, that the Irish had, that African-Americans had when they left the south and came up to the cities in the north.”
Hartford is the first city on the travel tour to host the updated, refurbished display of the exhibit. Kafer said that she specifically requested to host the exhibit in Hartford through most of September.
“I want students to be able to come and take advantage of this,” she says. “I know during the summer they are not here, so we have sent an email out to educators informing them about the exhibit. We already have a few that are interested.”
After that, “From Haven to Home” will head back out on the road.
“It is going to travel until the last JCC doesn’t want it anymore,” Feldberg says.
“From Haven to Home” opening reception with guest speaker Dr. Michael Feldberg; Wednesday, June 28, 5:30 p.m. at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Exhibit hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. Docent-led tours are available for groups.
Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call (860) 727-6170.
CAP: Photo credit: Charles Edward Chambers/Library of Congress.