By Dawn's Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War

Thomas Sully, American, born England, 1783–1872. Rebecca Gratz, 1831. Oil on panel, 50.8 × 43.2 cm. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia 1954.1936

Video featuring curators Adam Mendelsohn and Dale Rosengarten

Living in an age when Jews are fully integrated into so much of America’s public and popular culture, it is difficult to imagine a time before they shone on the stage and printed page. Such a future for Jews was scarcely imaginable in the crucible years after the birth of the United States. In the colonial period, there was little precedent for Jews speaking for themselves vocally and volubly in the public arena. At the dawn of the Republic, they were new to American public life. Yet as the United States started its grand experiment with liberty, and began to invent a culture of its own, Jews, too, began a grand experiment of living as equals. In a society that promised exceptional freedom, this was both liberating and confounding. As individuals, they were free to participate as full citizens in the hurly-burly of the new nation’s political and social life. But as members of a group that sought to remain distinctive, freedom was daunting. In response to the challenges of liberty, Jews adopted and adapted American and Jewish artistic idioms to express themselves in new ways as Americans and as Jews. In the process, they invented American Jewish culture, and contributed to the flowering of American culture during the earliest days of the Republic.

This exhibition, organized by the Princeton University Library, consists of more than 160 books, maps, manuscripts, prints, and paintings, including some of the earliest novels, plays, scientific treatises, and religious works produced by Jews in the United States.  The exhibition is based on the loans and gifts to Princeton University of Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953, as well as loans from museums, libraries, synagogues, and private collections.


A 352-page catalogue, with 13 scholarly essays and 75 full-color illustrations is available for purchase at the Museum Store.

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