August 22, 2019

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