Interpreting American Jewish History at Museum and Historic Sites

By Rosengarten, Dale | American Jewish History, January 2018 | Go to article overview

Interpreting American Jewish History at Museum and Historic Sites


Rosengarten, Dale, American Jewish History


Interpreting American Jewish History at Museum and Historic Sites. By Avi Y. Decter. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. xvi + 231 pp.

From a prison synagogue in eastern Pennsylvania, to a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Florence, Alabama, to the Fishing Club at Shady Side on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, American Jewish life has popped up in odd and unexpected places. With contributions from three talented colleagues, Avi Y. Decter provides a unique and highly readable roadmap to this far-flung and diverse topography. Written for an audience of professionals at museums and historic sites as part of an American Association for State and Local History series, he aims to make the unfamiliar less foreign and give courage to curators and educators who are "afraid to get it wrong" (3). Thematic chapters alternate with case studies of public history projects, including permanent installations such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, major exhibition and book projects, and the incorporation of Jewish content in digital encyclopedias like MNopedia, created by the Minnesota Historical Society.

To correct the preponderance of attention paid to Jewish life in a dozen large urban areas, Decter bends the storyline toward smaller cities and towns, highlighting innovative projects in Columbia, South Carolina; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Portland, Oregon; and Norfolk, Virginia; as well as mid-sized cities like Baltimore and Cleveland. Successful ventures all share common characteristics: they involve collaboration among partners, including Jewish and secular organizations; they employ the latest scholarship and new research; they utilize appropriate formats, like exhibitions, websites, film, radio, theatrical productions, and site restorations; and, above all, they are based on strong stories, told in language that is "vivid, concrete, and engaging" (22).

The text itself is a model of good writing, punctuated by clear and lively subheads. Footnotes and selected bibliographies at the end of each chapter help point readers to valuable sources and avenues of further investigation. This is a case of the book belying its covers, which, unfortunately, conform to a dull, academic template and make no effort at mass appeal. Likewise the title, adhering to the series formula, is flat as a pancake.

In a nuanced analysis of the push and pull that propelled immigration from Eastern Europe, Joshua J. Furman points out that in America "race, not religion, has proved the most enduring and intractable barrier to equality" (28). He quotes historian Hasia Diner, who observes that "migration went almost always from east to west, from places of limited Jewish rights and restricted opportunities to places of expanded rights and greater opportunities" (31). He emphasizes the role peddling played in establishing Jewish footholds across the country and in expanding the industrial economy in the nineteenth century. Furman is equally adept at describing the wave of refugees who arrived in the mid-twentieth century and the post-war migration within America, when Jews led the exodus from cities to suburbs as they climbed the ladder into the middle and upper-middle class. …

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