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Lighting the way
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Lighting the way

University hosts exhibit on early America’s Jews

Mordecai Manuel Noah, Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the years 1813-14 and 15, 1819. 
Mordecai Manuel Noah, Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the years 1813-14 and 15, 1819

period of “dramatic transformation” in the American-Jewish community is the focus of an exhibit running through June 16 in Princeton.

By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War,” which is dedicated to Jewish history in America from 1800 to right before the Civil War, is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum. 

Organized by the Princeton University Library, the show includes books, maps, manuscripts, prints, and paintings based on loans and gifts by Leonard L. Milberg, class of 1953, as well as loans from museums, libraries, synagogues, and private collections.

According to the curators, the exhibit includes some of the “earliest novels, plays, scientific treatises, and religious works” produced by Jews in the United States.

Among the items is a letter written by Benjamin Rush — a physician, devout Christian, and signer of the Declaration of Independence — that offers a firsthand account of the Jewish wedding of fellow Philadelphian Rachel Phillips.

“When you see a letter like this, something unique is coming into existence,” said Meir Soloveichik, contributor to the exhibition catalogue and rabbi of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel. “It is the first time in history we see Jews who feel free to be part of society and contribute to society and at the same time did not feel they had to dispense with any aspect of their Jewishness, public or private.”

Soloveichik was among the panelists at a Feb. 14 event marking the opening of the exhibit, which drew over 400 people.

During the approximate period covered by the exhibit, the Jewish population grew from about 2,500 who were settled on the East Coast and in a handful of port cities, to 200,000, spread “in every small town between Princeton and California,” said Adam Mendelsohn, editor and curator of the exhibit. “It was a period of dramatic transformation, soon to be overlooked because of the massive arrival of Jews in 1880.”

The exhibit shows how Jews identified with both sides during the American Revolution, yet managed to remain one community. Mendelssohn described how Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, a supporter of the American cause who fled New York for Philadelphia when the British landed, returned to New York, at some danger to his life, to perform the wedding of presumed loyalists.

Mendelsohn drew parallels between this prewar Jewish society and Jews today. “These early Jews are grappling with problems which are…very familiar — what it means to be Jews in a free society, to be a Jew by choice as opposed to a Jew whose identity is imposed by the outside community,” he said. With freedom comes “the risk…that community will love you to death if you’re not careful.This tension plays out over these decades and cultural artifacts.”

Dale Rosengarten, exhibit co-curator, shared observations about two painters, Theodore Sidney Moise and Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who came down on different sides in the slavery debate. The two “are contenders for ‘first native-born Jewish painters,’” she said. The careers of both men began in Charleston, SC. Moise, a portrait painter, eventually threw his support behind the Confederacy, whereas Carvalho, a daguerreotypist, became a devoted Republican and devotee of Abraham Lincoln. 

Capturing the sense of what it might mean to have divided loyalties but at the same time share a religious identity, Soloveichik told a story he came upon in a study of early seders: Meyer Levy, a northern soldier stationed in the South right after the Civil War, was looking for a seder to attend. Passing a boy eating matza, he asked if he could have some. The boy ran inside and said, “Mother, there’s a damn Yankee Jew outside.” But they did invite him to the seder. 

“What does it mean to be a Jew in the South celebrating freedom from slavery?” Soloveichik asked. “There is an interesting bond that exists without in any way detracting from their own status as loyal Union soldier and citizen of the Confederacy.” 

The opening panel was moderated by Esther Schor, professor of English at Princeton University. Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at the university, gave a lecture on the exhibit later in the afternoon.

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