Jewish Journal

‘350’ Exhibit Spends Winter at the Skirball

by David Finnigan

Posted on Oct. 27, 2005 at 8:00 pm

In 1927, a popular duo called The Happiness Boys had a hit song called, "Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me," which lampooned the car magnet's supposed contrition for the anti-Semitic content of his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.

Its catchy lyrics proclaimed:

"I was sad and I was blue,

But now I'm just as good as you,

Since Henry Ford apologized to me!"

A recording of that song is among the finds that will be on display in "From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America," which opens Nov. 10 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The exhibit traces American Jewish history -- from the 1654 arrival of 23 Sephardic refugees in New York through the 19th century's waves of Jewish immigration to a typed Phillip Roth manuscript and Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler.

The 250 photographs, documents and artifacts showcase Jewish life in a country that has been free of pogroms and still values religious plurality. The Skirball exhibit caps a year of "350" commemorations across the United States.

"From Haven to Home" starts the American Jewish story in September 1654, when 23 Jews fled Brazil and landed in New Amsterdam harbor (now New York City), with those Jews granted trade and travel rights the following year. The exhibit's march of time continues with an 1818 letter from Thomas Jefferson to influential Jewish American Mordecai Noah and also a copy of a copy of George Washington's famed 1790, "to bigotry no sanction" letter, sent to the Jews of Newport, R.I.

Among the Civil War Judaica is: A Confederate two-dollar bill bearing the face of Judah Benjamin -- a U.S. senator who defected to become one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Cabinet members -- and Abraham Lincoln's note rescinding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Union Army order expelling Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. The exhibit also shows an 1876 receipt for a $10 contribution to Washington, D.C.,'s first synagogue, which was made by Grant while he was president.

From 1889, the Skirball has a Torah binder from rural German Jewish settlers in the Rocky Mountains.

"It shows that not only did German Jews immigrate to the cities, but also settled throughout the land," said Michael Grunberger, head of the Hebraic section at the Library of Congress, which hosted the original "From Haven to Home" exhibition last fall in Washington.

More established Jewish communities speak through the Skirball exhibit's 1879 invitation to a Hebrew charity ball and an 1881 invitation to a Purim "fancy dress ball." The immigrant experience includes such items as Harry Houdini's 1913 passport application and Albert Einstein's 1936 Declaration of Intention statement to U.S. immigration officials.

"From Haven to Home" also features a display of Jewish American posters. A 1917 color poster advertises English-language classes for Ohio's Jewish immigrants, bearing the headline, "Cleveland -- Many Peoples, One Language."

A circa 1940s United Jewish Appeal lithograph seeks aid for Jewish refugees. Its Hebrew script reads: "Their fight is our fight." Ben Shahn's 1946 marching-in-the-streets poster encourages voter registration.

The exhibit's view of modern American Jewish life includes a handwritten 1961 seder guest list; a Yiddish translation of the Dr. Seuss classic, "The Cat in the Hat" ("Di Kats der Payats"); the eye-catching 2000 presidential campaign button, "Gore/ Lieberman in 5761," and the 20-something magazine, Heeb: The New Jew Review.

Along with most of the items found in the original Library of Congress exhibit, the Skirball exhibit will have 25 new items not displayed in Washington last fall, including a copy of Al Jolson's sheet music for the tune, "California Here I Come."

Since last September and for much of this year, Jewish organizations nationwide have celebrated the 350th anniversary. Versions of the "From Haven to Home" exhibit have made stops in Cincinnati and Boston.

"Our version of the exhibition is the closest to the Library of Congress," said Skirball senior curator Grace Cohen Grossman. "This is the culminating exhibition."

Three years in the making, "From Haven to Home" became the largest Library of Congress display presenting its American Jewish cultural artifacts, with the Skirball being the exhibit's largest outside provider of items.

Both in its Skirball and Library of Congress incarnations, the exhibit has sought to capture the evolving quality of Jewish culture's uniquely American experience. Fittingly, the last item in Skirball's gallery space will be a 1968 TV clip showing Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts with composer Irving Berlin, all singing his classic, "God Bless America."

"From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America," will run Nov. 10 to Feb. 12, 2006, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition will be open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays 12-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 12-9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission will be $8 general, $6 seniors and students, free on Thursdays. For more information call (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.com.


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