The American Jewish Historical Exhibit: History versus Religion

While most of the correspondence in the American Historical Society collection shows a positive and enthusiastic response to holding an exhibit, some letters do express concern.  On April 24, 1902, a letter writer who was an original member of the American Jewish Historical Society wrote that he most “emphatically and earnestly protest against” the inclusion of ecclesiastical art calling it a “sideshow.”[1]  He labels it a mistake for the society to veer from its original mission of devoting themselves “to the investigation of American Jewish History.”[2]  Interestingly, the letter acknowledges that the reason for including ecclesiastical art may be because American Jewish history would “arouse a general interest.”  However, he claims that as a “nonsectarian society” focusing on religion as part of the exhibit has nothing to do with American Jewish history.  The letter writer, however, also claims, “I cannot imagine anything more uninteteresting to the general public than to look at several cases filled with uninteresting portraits, with documents” that can, at most, “arouse a passing curiosity… to a very limited number of families.”[3]  He did, however, concede that the catalogue would be the “contribution” of such an exhibition.[4]

Morris Jastrow, JR., a librarian for the University of Pennsylvania was also not supportive of the planned exhibit.  In a letter to Cyrus Adler on May 18, 1901, he states that he does not “favor” an exhibit because he does not “believe that it would [be] interesting or that it would [be] worth the expenditure.”[5]  He clarifies that while he will bow to the majority, he does not object to the inclusion of many of the proposed objects including “exhibition objects which belong to the architecture or other phases of construction of Jewish houses of worship in this country, but this is something totally different from an exhibition of a Jewish ecclesiastical art” similar to the one in the Anglo-Jewish exhibit.[6]  Jastrow argues that the inclusion of religious objects lies “outside the scope” of their society which is “devoted strictly to historical research and any inclusion of such objects would be regarded as a  “lamentable departure for the purpose of the Society, as set down in [the] constitution and in [the] charter.”[7]  Jastrow ends the letter by threatening to leave the society if they take such a course.  The Society, made up of earlier settled and now assimilated Jews, seems to be addressing some tension that may be resulting from the presence of more religious observant Jewish immigrants arriving in America.


[1] Correspondence Pertaining to the Exhibition, B-F; American Jewish Historical Exhibition records; I-21; Box number 1; folder number 7; American Jewish Historical Society.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Correspondence Pertaining to the Exhibition, H-K; American Jewish Historical Exhibition records; I-21; Box number 1; folder number 9; American Jewish Historical Society.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.