In his article By Chance or Choice: Jews in New Amsterdam 1654, author Leo Hershkowitz said that in late summer of that year, 23 Jewish refugees walked onto the shores of New Amsterdam (at that time a Dutch settlement established at the southern tip of Manhattan island) carrying a Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the clothes on their backs; this was the beginning of Jewish emigration to America and the start of a long enrichment of American culture and history.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Jewish American” refers to an identity involving any combination and weight of Jewish ancestry, culture, religion, morality and ethics, social practices and spheres, and even a sense of humor among other qualities.
Since 2006, we celebrate more than 350 years of American Jewish history during Jewish Heritage Month in May.
Great ways to celebrate such a diverse and multifaceted heritage include:
The Jewish Book Council, founded in 1943, is devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature. The JBC partners with the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History to offer a reading list that highlights and speaks to the Jewish American experience throughout history.
This year, the reading list includes fiction, nonfiction, and children’s titles. Some of the books touch on multi-culturalism, like Tia Fortnua’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey and Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture. Many nonfiction titles are historical works, like American Judaism: A History.
Art & Culture
Literature, art, and culture are fingers of the same hand.
The Frick Collection, internationally recognized as a premier museum and research center known for its distinguished Old Master paintings and outstanding examples of European culture and decorative arts, recommends a Reading List: Jewish American Heritage Month that explores Jewish American art and artists.
The Jewish Arts Collaborative was formed in 2015 and seeks to build connections through the unique power of arts and culture; their goal is to build a vibrant and more tolerant future. “JArts’ mission is to curate, celebrate, and build community around the diverse world of Jewish arts, culture, and creative expression. Our vision is of a more connected, engaged, and tolerant world inspired by Jewish arts and culture.” according to their website. The website boasts a library, events calendar, and both online and in-person opportunities.
One way to connect to Jewish American culture is to take in movies and shows that reflect those values and mores.
The Jewish Americans, available from the Public Broadcasting System among related documentaries, provides a journey through time. From those first 23 arrivals in 1654 to the present, this three-part series explores the struggle of a minority making their way into the American mainstream while maintaining their own identity.
Minor Jewish characters abound on Disney+; Gargoyles, Even Stevens (series and movie), Lizzie McGuire (ditto), Phineas and Ferb, Kim Possible, Elena of Avalor, and Kronk’s New Groove all include explicitly Jewish supporting characters.
Streaming service Hulu offers Will & Grace (1998 and the 2017 revival); the titular character of Grace is written as a Jewish role. Hulu also has dramas like Mrs. America, a historical drama series about the Equal Rights Amendment, and features the characters of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug; all Jewish.
Disney+’s Moon Knight features a canonically (“relating to a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works”) Jewish main character; Marc Spector, the prime persona for the Moon Knight superhero. This detail is taken directly from the original comic book series. Check out season one, episode five “Asylum” to learn more.
Many cultures center food and meals in their society and Jewish culture is no exception; diet and food play a delicious role. The Jewish Food Society is dedicated as a resource for stories, recipes, and more about Jewish food.
Jewish American cuisine largely draws from the Ashkenazi line of Jewish ancestry. Ashkenazi Jews were removed from their Eastern Mediterranean home of what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria by the Holy Roman Empire around 1000 A.D. and settled in Eastern and Central Europe (the Slavic states, Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, and Russia).
The Jewish delicatessen is an iconic establishment in American cuisine. (“Delikatessen” is from the Latin root word “delicatus” meaning “giving pleasure, delightful, pleasing.”) Most Jewish delis serve Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Common menu items include sandwiches like pastrami on rye and rubens, soups like matzo ball and chicken noodle, and breakfast or brunch items like smoked salmon or whitefish with bagels and cream cheese.
Jewish cuisine draws from world-wide techniques and ingredients. New-world ingredients like potatoes are used to make latkes (oil-fried potato pancakes or fritters). “Tzimmes” is a traditional fruit and vegetable stew side-dish made from ingredients easily accessible to low-income European families.
One book recommended by the Jewish Book Council is Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew. Written by Michael Twitty, Koshersoul considers the blending of African and Jewish cuisines. To do so, Twitty considers topics like race, the definition of “mainstream,” commonalities and differences, hospitality, and of course, recipes for delicious food to try.
The American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection from the New York Public Library is an “incomparable repository of unique and unpublished primary source material for the study of what is often called “the American Jewish experience in the 20th century” according to the NYPL. 350 transcripts are available online.
“Participants in these extended, ethnically focused interviews run the gamut from feminist pioneer Congresswoman Bella Abzug to Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, last of the original Hollywood movie moguls, recorded in 1972 at the age of 99. The informants, each of them interviewed separately, together make up a cast of considerable diversity: Marv Albert rubs shoulders with Salo Baron, Abe Beame with Henri Bendel, David Ben-Gurion with Jack Benny, Hank Greenberg with Al Jolson, Alfred Kazin with Larry King, Groucho Marx with Jackie Mason, Arthur Miller with Bess Myerson, Roberta Peters with Molly Picon, and Bashevis Singer with Barbra Streisand.” says the website.
Social media is a tool, for better or worse. By repeating and amplifying diverse voices, everyone can promote an inclusive and equitable environment of belonging. Who and what you follow… and share… matters.
Previously mentioned organizations, museums, and centers are all present on social media and can provide unique and authentic voices to learn from and share with.
Another powerful way to listen, learn, and share about Jewish American heritage on social media is to follow accounts like the Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum). This account posts several times a day, correcting misinformation and remembering those murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp and elsewhere.
If you choose to use social media to expand your celebration of different histories and heritages, consider familiarizing yourself with how to report posts that conflict with DEIB values. Most social media platforms have mechanisms to draw moderator attention to such speech for evaluation. Your favorite search engine can help you search for “How do I report posts on [platform name]?”
Online events are available year-round from local public libraries; look for one near you!
The National Archives Museum is hosting Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army online Thursday, May 18, 2023 - 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. EDT.
Jewish community groups across the United States host regular celebrations and meetings, some open to all who are interested in learning more; a quick internet search and an email can get you started on broadening your horizons.
Other resources include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, and the Holocaust Museum LA. The Pew Research Center states that one of the overall and defining ways that Jewish Americans, observant or not, identify themselves as Jewish is remembering the Holocaust, or Shoah (in Hebrew). By taking information about the murder of 6 million Jews directly from qualified authorities, everyone can help amplify that truth.
By listening respectfully and learning, we can develop our understanding of our own culture and gain an appreciation of other cultures. Those first 23 Jewish Americans were followed in 1655 by another small group; they came from Europe directly, and by way of Brazil and the Caribbean Islands. They became merchants, explorers, settlers; more followed. Jewish Americans have changed the course of history; people like Albert Einstein, Gloria Steinem, Stephen Sondheim and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Indeed, Jewish Americans pre-date America itself.
Jewish American Heritage Month is a celebration of American history.
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