Closer Readings Commentary

Jewish American Heritage Month

Congregation Emunath Israel on West Twenty-third Street in New York City remained open 24 hours on D-Day (June 6, 1944) for special services and prayer. 
Photo caption

Congregation Emunath Israel on West Twenty-third Street in New York City remained open 24 hours on D-Day (June 6, 1944) for special services and prayer. 

Each May, EDSITEment celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month by pointing to the rich array of educational resources on the history of the Jewish people in America. Many of the programs and websites highlighted have been funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities over the past decades.

Mission US: City of Immigrants

One of the most innovative ways for students to learn about the Jewish American experience of the early years of the 20th century is through Mission US 4: City of Immigrants, where players navigate New York’s Lower East Side as Lena, a young Jewish immigrant from Russia. Trying to save money to bring her parents to America, she works long hours in a factory for little money and gets caught up in the growing labor movement. 

George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport

The idea of America as both a haven and a home for the religious faiths of the myriad diverse groups who, over the centuries, have immigrated to the United States is one that deeply resonates with most Americans. The blessings of religious and political liberty that these immigrants found in America were captured eloquently in George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. In this letter, Washington quotes a sentence from the Book of Micah of the Hebrew Bible:

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

A few sentences earlier, Washington addresses American Jews as equal fellow citizens (the first time in history that any national leader had done so):

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

Washington's letter was in response to one written by Moses Seixas, Warden of the Jeshuat Israel Synagogue in Rhode Island. The principles of civil and religious liberty extolled in this letter and embodied in our Constitution encouraged and rewarded active participation in the social, political, and cultural life of the nation with results that will be celebrated in this feature.

A brief history of the Jewish American religious experience in the 19th and 20th centuries can be found in Divining America: Religion in American History from the National Humanities Center.

Becoming Jewish Americans

A good place to begin if one wants to understand Jewish life in America would be The Jewish Americans,  broadcast on PBS stations and partially funded by NEH. The series website offers a treasure trove of video clips, images, and student interactives on such topics as: 

A related NEH-funded website, Jews in America: Our Story, documents the growth of the Jewish community from a group of 23 refugees fleeing from the Portuguese Inquisition in 1654. This comprehensive website on the history and culture includes an interactive historical timeline, with a gallery of over five hundred artifacts drawn from the library, archival, and museum collections of the Center for Jewish History and its partners.

The Humanities magazine article “Jewish Pioneers”  tells the stories of the new lives that European Jews made for themselves west of the Mississippi in the 19th century. According to one scholar “there wasn’t a single settlement west of the Mississippi of any significance which had not had a Jewish mayor” in 1900.

The Struggle for Civil Rights and Social Justice

Over the years, NEH has supported the production of many episodes of the long-running series American Experience. Whether the programs are devoted to well-known figures such as Emma Goldman, the passionate radical, or on the long forgotten New York lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, who defended the Scottsboro boys, the American Experience website offers new and often surprising insights into the diverse roles that Jewish Americans played in the larger national story.

Another PBS program on American history The People v. Leo Frank tells the story of the most famous lynching of a white man in American history. According to the program, there were two conflicting legacies of the Frank case, one was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan as an anti-Semitic outfit and the other was the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League as defender of civil rights and social justice for all Americans. A teacher's guide to the film is available on the Anti-Defamation League website.

The Holocaust

The Holocaust is one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. Its enormity is difficult for students to comprehend, particularly if it is presented as a general historical event. One effective way of approaching this topic is for students to hear the testimony of individual survivors. Coming of Age in the Holocaust, Coming of Age Now is a free, interactive curriculum for middle and high-school students and their educators created by the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum in Israel.

The Diary of Ann Frank remains a classic high school text. EDSITEment’s lessons Anne Frank: One of Hundreds of Thousands and Anne Frank: Writer offer opportunities for your students to examine the historical conditions which impelled Anne’s family to go into hiding and the writing strategy she employed.

Jewish American Artists

PBS American Masters offers rich resources for investigating the exemplary contributions of Jewish Americans to such fields as music, theatre, film, and television. Where would American music be without the dynamic rhythms of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, or the swinging melodies of Benny Goodman and his orchestra? American Theatre would be poorer without the complex characters and conflicts of Arthur Miller’s plays, the dazzling directing talent of Jerome Robbins and Harold Clurman and the brilliant actors developed under the mentorship of Stella Adler. Similarly, listen to how Allen Ginsberg’s life and poems “Howl” and “Kaddish” inspired the counterculture of America in the midpoint of the century or how Annie Leibovitz turned celebrity photography into an art. It may come as something of a surprise to discover that American Masters also produced a program on one of the greatest scientific thinkers of all time, Albert Einstein. Yet he surely deserves recognition in a series devoted to “examining the lives, works, and creative processes of our most outstanding cultural artists.”


Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, two Jewish Americans who excelled at the national pastime, are featured on the Ken Burns series Baseball. Further resources on these legends and other players can be found on Chasing Dreams Baseball and Becoming American from the National Museum of American Jewish History.