Visu­al Arts

Jews in Amer­i­ca: From New Ams­ter­dam to the Yid­dish Stage

Stephen D. Corrsin, Aman­da Seigel and Ken­neth Benson
  • Review
By – February 14, 2013

A beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed cat­a­logue of choice Jew­ish trea­sures in the col­lec­tion of the New York Pub­lic Library, Jews in Amer­i­ca includes descrip­tions, illus­tra­tions both in black and white and col­or of rare con­tem­po­rary books, pam­phlets, man­u­scripts, globes, maps, and engrav­ings. The selec­tions are arranged in chap­ters, each intro­duced by an essay by Jonathan D. Sar­na, the not­ed schol­ar of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. The open­ing chap­ter focus­es on the his­tor­i­cal back­ground of the first Jew­ish set­tlers arriv­ing from Brazil, Suri­nam, and oth­er Caribbean islands of the Dutch and Por­tuguese colonies who, fre­quent­ly as Con­ver­sos, had fled the Inqui­si­tion. Doc­u­ment­ing those jour­neys are maps, trav­el diaries, reli­gious respon­sa relat­ing to the new set­tle­ments, and a record of an auto-da-fé.

More famil­iar than many items is the 1636 etch­ing of Man­asseh ben Israel by Rem­brandt van Rijn which was exhib­it­ed in a 2004 exhi­bi­tion, along with Manassah’s pub­li­ca­tion, both in Hebrew and Eng­lish of Mikveh Yis­rael (The Hope of Israel). The work address­es his thoughts on the pop­u­lar idea that the Indi­ans in Amer­i­ca were pos­si­bly the descen­dents of the ten lost tribes of Israel. That ques­tion was debat­ed for many decades in the ear­ly peri­od of the set­tle­ment of the New World,” even by William Penn, the Quak­er founder of Penn­syl­va­nia, in whose biog­ra­phy (Cat­a­logue 45) is the state­ment by Penn, As to the orig­i­nal of this extra­or­di­nary peo­ple [Amer­i­can Indi­ans], I can­not but believe they are of the Jew­ish race, I mean of the stock of the ten tribes so long lost.”

The Library’s col­lec­tion includes copies of the first trans­la­tions pub­lished in Amer­i­ca of the Bible, the Sid­dur, and the Hag­gadah. It also includes many doc­u­ments relat­ing to the Civ­il War, both Union and Con­fed­er­ate.

Of more con­tem­po­rary inter­est are the records of com­mu­ni­ty build­ing, the char­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions, and the nascent Zion­ist groups, as well as the appear­ance of a vibrant Yid­dish The­ater cul­ture attest­ed to by the vari­ety of posters and play­bills in the col­lec­tion.

Known as the Dorot Jew­ish Divi­sion of the New York Pub­lic Library, it had its begin­nings in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry with dona­tions from the Lenox, Astor, and Aguilar libraries. It sub­se­quent­ly enjoyed great expan­sion with the sup­port of Jacob Schiff, the not­ed Jew­ish financier who estab­lished an acqui­si­tions fund. With oth­er phil­an­thropic sup­port, the library now has over 300,000 books, peri­od­i­cals, man­u­scripts, micro­forms, and ephemera with a wealth of pri­ma­ry sources that are avail­able to researchers who may or may not have aca­d­e­m­ic affiliations. 

While the more than one hun­dred cat­a­logued items in this book attest to the library’s pre­em­i­nent resources, the book can sim­ply be appre­ci­at­ed as a visu­al­ly pleas­ing cof­fee-table book” with substance.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions