UCLA Hillel exhibition recounts the legacy of America’s Jewish pioneers

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz wants to correct what he sees as a major misunderstanding about the history of Jews in this country.

“There’s a misconception that Jewish life in America started after World War II,” he said. “But Jewish life existed more than 100 years before there even was a United States.”

Horowitz, the founder of American Jewish Legacy, a nonprofit historical organization, has created an exhibition to chronicle Jewish life dating back to the first recorded landing of Jews in North America.

“From the Mountains to the Prairie: 350 Years of Kosher and Jewish Life in America” details the experience of American Jews since 23 Jewish immigrants sailed from Brazil to New York in 1654. The show will be on display at UCLA Hillel until early February.

It consists of 20 panels, divided into three sections. The first segment focuses on Jewish life in the colonies, the second describes the Gold Rush and prairie experience and the third displays advertisements produced by mainstream American companies to court Jewish customers.

“The purpose of this exhibit is to salute the Jewish men and women of the United States who … practiced their traditions and beliefs … in the harshest environments and under the most difficult circumstances,” the introductory panel states. “The farmer behind a plow, the banker behind his desk, the peddler carrying his pack, the storekeeper selling his wares, and the soldier serving his country — in all these roles and in others, traditional Jews served their God and country.”

Jews played a critical role in the development of this country, and they did so without sacrificing their religious culture or traditions, Horowitz said. Jews in remote villages kept kosher, even when they had to wait hours or days for a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, to arrive on horseback. Women used local rivers as a mikvah, despite sometimes frigid temperatures. Workers took Shabbat off at the risk of getting fired, Horowitz said.

One panel of the exhibition includes the accounts of two Civil War soldiers — one Confederate, the other Union — who went to great lengths, paying exorbitant fees and seeking out ingredients, to stage seders on the battlefield. Another panel includes a note written by a man chasing gold in Mokelumne Hill who explained that he would celebrate Passover whenever the matzah arrived from San Francisco.

The first American Jewish congregation was established in New York in 1695, according to the show’s documentation. (Other scholars point to Shearith Israel as the nation’s first congregation, and the synagogue’s Rabbi Marc D. Angel writes that it began in 1654.) Soon after, Jews set up communities in Rhode Island, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.

Until the 1840s, most American Jews were traditional in their religious observance, or what we would call Orthodox, Horowitz said. Keeping kosher played a central role in the community. Synagogues earned much of their income from selling their congregants kosher meat and matzah. When Jews settled a community, right away they would engage a shochet, who typically also served as cantor, teacher and mohel. It was the slaughterer, not the rabbi, around whom the congregation revolved, Horowitz said.

One panel describes a celebration after Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution at which officials prepared a kosher table especially for Jews.

The final section showcases advertisements from the 1900s targeted at Jews. Use Pillsbury flour for “delicious Chollah for the Succoth table” one ad exhorts. Drink “Pepsi Cola — kosher for Passover,” says another. In an ad for Borden milk, Elsie the cow says in Yiddish, “The Buba [grandmother] never dreamed of such milk!”

Horowitz, a 50-year-old, fourth-generation American Chasidic rabbi, created the exhibition in 2003 to celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in America. What sets this display apart from other commemorations is the focus on religious observance, said Horowitz, who, for his day job, oversees kosher food programs for Manischewitz, Rokeach and other brands of the R.A.B. Food Group.

Perla Karney, artistic director at UCLA Hillel, said she mounted the show because “this emphasis on traditional Jewish life hadn’t been done.”

She added: “This history is so obscure to most American Jews. I don’t think anyone knows that in the prairies and in the mountains and the smallest communities of the United States, there were Jews who tried to have a kosher lifestyle.”

Horowitz said he felt an urgency to collect the material, because archives documenting Jewish American history are being tossed out of attics and basements daily. If American Jews do not preserve the history of their predecessors, then who will?

“These are real American heroes,” Horowitz said. “It’s incumbent upon us to remember their stories.”

UCLA Hillel will host a free, public reception for the exhibition on Wednesday, Jan. 10, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. “The American Jewish Legacy” is on the third floor of UCLA Hillel at 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. It is open to the public from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday, through Feb. 7, 2007. For more information, contact Perla Karney at (310) 208-3081 ext. 108 or e-mail perla@uclahillel.org.

On the Lone Prairie

When I consider author Sara Davidson’s now-so-public love affair with a cowboy who didn’t know about Anne Frank, I can hear my mother saying, “Honey, you could do so much better.”

To which Davidson’s response would surely be, “Show me how.”

Davidson’s new fictionalized memoir, “Cowboy,” about a UC Berkeley/Columbia-educated Jewish girl who “dates down in class,” quickly reached the best-seller list, thanks to a barrage of publicity that focused on the inappropriateness of the relationship. When we talked this week in her Santa Monica home, where a brown saddle sits near the front door, Davidson carried the self-satisfying aura of a woman whose bet had paid off.

Davidson wrote “Cowboy” over three years, on spec, after quitting her job as chief writer on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” She had no literary agent or publisher willing to take her on. “I couldn’t get a free-lance writing job,” she told me. She has no illusions about the commercial nature of her business, and even appreciates Maureen Dowd’s put-down of the book as “Cowboy Feminism.” “It’s just ink at this point,” Davidson said of Dowd’s New York Times Op-Ed piece. And it sells books.

I wouldn’t be adding to the hype for “Cowboy” but for one thing. Sara Davidson is visiting territory that I have been loathe to mention myself: the sorry mating habits of ambitious, high-living Jewish women in this post-feminist era.

It’s just an awful cheat, I have to say. Here we are, so highly evolved that we’ve quit our therapists and man our own barbecues, and what do we get: the thrill of a bed and a life on the lone prairie. Garrison Keillor, in this week’s issue of Salon, likens the supply of single, “well-read men over 40” to a rare specie of mountain goat. I think he’s being generous. Among Jewish men, the odds are — well, you know them yourself.

As feminists, we used to say that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. But, on second thought, maybe fish do like to pedal.

Sara Davidson’s solution to the problem life on the lone prairie was to go where few Jewish women treadeth — a cowboy poetry festival in Elko, Nev. Her affair with the fictional “Zack,” a man many inches shorter and 10 years her junior, followed two marriages to Jewish men. She had been dating a television producer, the kind of guy you’d expect for a woman who grew up in the Fairfax district. But the relationship just didn’t work.

“I censored myself constantly,” said Davidson, who once rode ponies on La Cienega. “I was always worried he would go away.”

With Zack, everything “works” just fine. He clips her toenails and gives her a back rub and likes to comfort her when she’s down. Moreover, he gives up his rural life for her, just as women used to do for men, and he only whines about it once. In short, there’s none of the competition between them that’s killing relationships these days. Think “A Star is Born,” except Norman Maine is part of the publicity tour.

Still, “Cowboy” often reminds me of the old Jewish joke my parents tell: Behind every successful man there’s a woman…who thinks he’s an idiot. In this case, the woman is in front of the man, and she calls him “a yokel, an insolent yokel.” She grieves that even if she’s paying all the bills, she’ll never get him to a better restaurant than Polly’s, the pie place in Santa Monica. And he’s not successful at all; he can’t even pay his own bills.

Nevertheless — and here’s the rub — he is still a man. A strong, silent, knowing man who turns her life around. It’s an old-fashioned romance, after all.

Is this really what (Jewish) women want? And is this really the best we can get?

The children’s part of the story doesn’t work out so well. Sara’s children detest Zack, not only as children always do the new male in Mommy’s life, but as something of an affront to cultural values that they’d been raised by. If they eventually accommodate to him, we’re left puzzled and grateful there’s a Jewish dad somewhere close by.

Which brings us to Anne Frank, and to us. Davidson uses her cowboy’s ignorance of Anne Frank as a metaphor for the cultural, ethical and class differences between herself and him. This presumably unbridgeable gap is too quickly smoothed over for my taste, resolved by time and love. Sara continues to make Sabbath dinner while Goff, Zack’s real name, participates in her children’s bar mitzvah services and Passover seder. Very nice. Still, when she calls him her “partner,” I’m wondering why this particular partnership works, while ones with men from her own background did not, and what she’s censoring in herself in order to make yet another relationship work.

Somewhere in the brave world to come, post-feminist men and women will come together more easily, and neither will have to cut off huge parts of themselves to find comfort and love. Seldom will be heard a discouraging word…. Home, home on the range.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On The Way Press). Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com

Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com.