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

For Jews, a tiny minority in the early Republic, freedom was both liberating and confounding. As individuals they were free to participate fully in the new nation’s political and social life. However, for members of a group that sought to remain distinctive, America’s dawn also signaled the twilight of an earlier age. Constraints that had maintained social cohesion loosened, and synagogues, accustomed to enforcing discipline, were challenged by indifference and individualism.

This revolution in Jewish life was speeded by the arrival of throngs of newcomers. Jews flocked to America’s shores, driven from Europe by social rupture and political upheaval, and lured by the promise of economic opportunity and religious freedom. Over the course of sixty years, America’s Jewish population grew from 2,500 in 1800 to at least 150,000 by the eve of the Civil War. In response to the challenges of liberty, Jewish men and women adapted American and Jewish intellectual and artistic idioms to express themselves in new ways. Many Jews wrote, published, and painted for the broader American public. Others harnessed the written word to reach the nation’s growing—and widely dispersed—Jewish population.

This spring the Museum hosts By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War, an exhibition organized by the Princeton University Library; curated by Adam Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, South Africa; and cocurated by Dale Rosengarten, curator of the Jewish  Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library in Charleston, South Carolina, and director of the College’s Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture. The exhibition features some of the earliest novels, poems, religious works, paintings, photographs, newspapers, maps, and scientific treatises produced by Jews in the United States, showcasing a rich variety of Jewish voices and imagery from an age of experimentation. As Mendelsohn remarks, “The materials on display provide a portal into an earlier age of cultural vitality when the United States itself was new. They illuminate the extraordinary creativity of American Jews in the early Republic. And they expose a set of profound changes that reshaped America and its Jewish community and made this moment of cultural vitality possible.”

Based largely on the collection and gifts of Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953, together with loans from nearly thirty libraries, museums, and private collections, the exhibition includes approximately 170 works, ranging from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the items were printed or made in what is now the United States, but others signal the New World connections of American Jews—especially to the Caribbean, where the first Jews in North America settled in the mid-1600s. Together, these works not only reveal the challenges that Jews faced in America but also chronicle Jews’ deep contributions to American intellectual, political, and cultural life as well as the devel opment of Jewish American identity. Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University, notes, “The collection encourages a shift away from the all-too-prevalent focus upon the ‘image of the Jew’—meaning the study of the Jew as object—and underscores the agency of Jews, their role as creators and shapers of the nascent national culture.”

Stephen Ferguson

Acting Associate University Librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War has been organized by the Princeton University Library. The exhibition is sponsored by and is based on the collection and gifts of Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953.

Highlights from the exhibition

Thomas Sully (American, born England, 1783–1872), Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869), 1831. Oil on panel, 50.8 x 43.2 cm. Collection of the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia philanthropist and educator Rebecca Gratz was the best-known Jewish woman of her day. She established several communal and welfare organizations as well as a Hebrew Sunday school. The need for such groups reveals a significant change in Jewish life: with the declining power of the synagogue to control all dimensions of Jewish life, new institutions were needed to fill communal needs. This shift coincided with an emerging understanding that philanthropic activity was an appropriate public undertaking for respectable women.Thomas Jefferson (American, 1743–1826), Letter denouncing anti-Semitism written to Mordecai Manuel Noah, May 28, 1818. Collection of the Yeshiva University Museum, Gift of Erica and Ludwig Jesselson. After receiving a sermon sent to him by the prominent Jewish leader Mordecai Manuel Noah, Thomas Jefferson responded in this letter expressing his thoughts on religious tolerance. Jefferson condemns anti-Semitism and suggests that education could help the Jewish community gain “respect and favor.” His acceptance—and similar expressions from George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison—allowed Jews to enter national debates on topics such as women’s rights and slavery. Myer Myers (American, 1723–1795), Rimonim (Torah finials), 1765–76. Silver and brass with parcel gilding, h. 36.5 cm each. Collection of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City. Myer Myers was New York City’s leading silversmith in the two decades preceding the American Revolution. These pierced-work Torah finials—used to decorate the staves on which the Torah scroll is wound—are still in the possession of Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in America, with which Myers was associated throughout his life.