I just back from the city. This evening I went with a friend from work to see Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War at the Jewish Museum on 16th Street. The recently opened exhibit is co-sponsored by Yeshiva University Museum and the American Jewish Historical Society. It was quite the New York evening, complete with dinner afterward at a coffee shop down the street from the museum as the rain pounded down outside. Tonight was actually the curator’s walk-through. Last month, a few days after the exhibit began, I tried to rsvp for what I thought was the only such event; to my surprise the coordinator emailed back to say they were booked. Again to my surprise, she said I could book for April. The curator talks are apparently once a month affairs. I was glad we went tonight to get the curator’s perspective. It is a part of Civil War and United States history we do not hear too much about. When we think “Jewish American history” we think Ellis Island, Lower East Side, and The Jazz Singer, not Shiloh, Chancellorsville, and the March to the Sea. The show is fascinating on its own. It is also a lesson in letting go of one’s preconceived notions whatever the topic.
I had been looking forward to Passages since hearing about it over two years ago. The show is a continuation of sorts of a similar exhibition put on by the Jewish Museum fifty years ago during the Centennial. That 60s show, The American Jew in the Civil War, was a pioneering exhibit that examined the role of American Jewry in the War of the Rebellion, borrowing heavily from the expertise of the late Rabbi Bertram Korn. His is still the authoritative book on the subject. There were 125,000 Jews living in the United States in 1860, up from the 15,000 twenty years earlier. Approximately 10,000 Jews, many of them recent immigrants, fought in the war. They fought for myriad reasons, and as with all other groups the Jewish community had its share of heroes and scoundrels. The exhibit does not shy away from the complicated story. I was already intending to go back in the summer before it ends in August. I was only more excited to do so after hearing that they will be tinkering with the artifacts and signage in the coming days. If in New York try to see this one before it ends.
Getting our sesquicentennial on, Gotham style . . .
(postcard circa 1907-1915, New York Public Library)