Interpreting American Jewish History at Museum and Historic Sites by Avi Y. Decter
From a prison synagogue in eastern Pennsylvania, to a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Florence, Alabama, to the Fishing Club at Shady Side on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, American Jewish life has popped up in odd and unexpected places. With contributions from three talented colleagues, Avi Y. Decter provides a unique and highly readable roadmap to this far-flung and diverse topography. Written for an audience of professionals at museums and historic sites as part of an American Association for State and Local History series, he aims to make the unfamiliar less foreign and give courage to curators and educators who are "afraid to get it wrong" (3). Thematic chapters alternate with case studies of public history projects, including permanent installations such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, major exhibition and book projects, and the incorporation of Jewish content in digital encyclopedias like MNopedia, created by the Minnesota Historical Society.
To correct the preponderance of attention paid to Jewish life in a dozen large urban areas, Decter bends the storyline toward smaller cities and towns, highlighting innovative projects in Columbia, South Carolina; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Portland, Oregon; and Norfolk, Virginia; as well as mid-sized cities like Baltimore and Cleveland. Successful ventures all share common characteristics: they involve collaboration among partners, including Jewish and secular organizations; they employ the latest scholarship and new research; they utilize appropriate formats, like exhibitions, websites, film, radio, theatrical productions, and site restorations; and, above all, they are based on strong stories, told in language that is "vivid, concrete, and engaging" (22).
The text itself is a model of good writing, punctuated by clear and lively subheads. Footnotes and selected bibliographies at the end of each chapter help point readers to valuable sources and avenues of further investigation. This is a case of the book belying its covers, which, unfortunately, conform to a dull, academic template and make no effort at mass appeal. Likewise the title, adhering to the series formula, is flat as a pancake.
In a nuanced analysis of the push and pull that propelled immigration from Eastern Europe, Joshua J. Furman points out that in America [End Page 159] "race, not religion, has proved the most enduring and intractable barrier to equality" (28). He quotes historian Hasia Diner, who observes that "migration went almost always from east to west, from places of limited Jewish rights and restricted opportunities to places of expanded rights and greater opportunities" (31). He emphasizes the role peddling played in establishing Jewish footholds across the country and in expanding the industrial economy in the nineteenth century. Furman is equally adept at describing the wave of refugees who arrived in the mid-twentieth century and the post-war migration within America, when Jews led the exodus from cities to suburbs as they climbed the ladder into the middle and upper-middle class. Lest readers become sanguine about the success of Jewish acculturation in the United States, Zev Eleff contributes an incisive essay dissecting encounters with discrimination, up to and including the current debate on whether anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism.
In the chapter titled "Family and Festivals," Decter tackles the intimate subject of Jewish domestic life. He is careful to show that the process of "becoming American" entailed losses as well as gains. He dispels the myth of the immigrant Jew as pious, observant, kosher, and learned. Many newcomers, he claims, "had already begun to move away from traditional Jewish culture and observance" and were eager to "accommodate to the norms and values of American society" (69–70). Decter warns us not to underestimate the miseries of immigrant life, the dislocations and disruptions, the prevalence of broken families and abandoned children who filled orphanages for the indigent; but he also points to communal institutions such as landsmanshaftn, extended families, and ethnic enclaves that helped stabilize family life.
Among several studies of intriguing projects dealing with domestic life, perhaps the most ambitious is the Shapiro House at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which presents an entire neighborhood of historic buildings on their original foundations. The Shapiro House, restored to 1919, is the most visited of the site's historic structures. Its interpretive program is based on an intensive oral history project and presented by costumed docents. A tour of nearby Temple Israel, where the Shapiros attended shul, gives guests a glimpse of Jewish communal life between the world wars.
Judged by the astonishing variety of subject matter Decter deploys—from cookbooks and culinary artifacts, to Jewish agricultural colonies and summer camps, to online databases and community encyclopedias, to a film about klezmer music in Philadelphia and an exhibition on New York's Yiddish theater—interpreting American Jewish history has been a steady growth industry. Membership in the Council of American Jewish Museums has soared from 7 in 1977 to more than 80 today. A [End Page 160] chapter co-authored by Grace Cohen Grossman lays out the abundant resources Jewish museums and historical societies have developed since the first official representation of American Jewry at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, continuing through the advent of Holocaust museums in the late twentieth century, to the celebration in 2004 of 350 years of Jewish life in America.
Decter and his contributors want mainstream museums to initiate Jewish projects as well. For this to happen, museum professionals will need to become better versed in the history of American Jews. Decter & Co. provide a crash course and a tantalizing parade of model projects. A salutary byproduct might be to steer the dialogue toward cross-cultural discourse and move away from the celebratory exercise of exhibiting Judaica in isolation.
Dale Rosengarten is founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library and associate director of the College's Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture. She co-edited A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life (University of South Carolina Press, 2002), based on an exhibition of the same name.