|Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience Heritage Month
On April 20, 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law an act establishing May as Jewish American Heritage Month, recognizing the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture. Jews have been in America since 1654 and have lived in the South since the late 17th century. As late as 1820, more Jews lived in Charleston, South Carolina than in any other city in the United States. Though they are less than 1% of the general southern population, and less than 5% of America’s Jewish population, southern Jews have made a significant mark on the communities in which they live. Nationwide, Jewish immigrants have made significant and lasting contributions to both their local communities and the nation at large.
Jewish American Heritage Month celebrates the achievements of Jewish Americans, fosters pride among the American Jewish community, and aims to educate and enlighten a wider audience about the achievements of Jewish Americans. This month is an opportunity for congregations to explore their history and look further into the larger Jewish immigration story. It is also a chance to share your knowledge and Jewish pride with your community and highlight Jewish Americans and southern Jewish Americans.
Here are a few ways you can participate in Jewish American Heritage Month. Check back for frequent updates and more resources, and please let us know how we can help you celebrate this month in your community.
In 1903 Oscar Straus is appointed Secretary of Labor and Commerce, the first Jew to hold a Cabinet position.
Physicist Albert A. Michelson is the first American Jew to win the Nobel Prize in 1907.
Louis Dembitz Brandeis is the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916.
Edna Ferber is the first American Jew to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1925.
Brandeis University is founded as first nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored, institution of higher education in 1948.
In 1957 the United States attains world's largest Jewish population.
Hebrew Union College ordains Sally J. Priesand first woman rabbi in 1972.
Ronald Mark Blomberg, nicknamed Boomer, was Major League Baseball’s first designated hitter on April 6, 1973 playing for the New York Yankees in a game against the Boston Red Sox.
Mark Spitz, an American swimmer, won the second most gold medals during a single Olympics. Spitz won seven at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Joanna Zeiger currently holds the Ironman 70.3 world record time of 4:02.49 which she won at the World Championship in Clearwater Florida in 2008. Ironman 70.3, known as the half-Ironman, includes a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run. 70.3 is the total distance in miles.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin became a feminist author and advocate in the 1970s. She was the founding editor of Ms. Magazine and a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock on Star Trek, developed the iconic Vulcan salute (a raised hand with palm forward and parted fingers between the middle and ring finger) based on the traditional kohanic blessing. The blessing is performed with two hands thought to represent the Hebrew letter shin.
Shari Lewis, born Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz, was the original puppeteer for the beloved children’s character Lamb Chop. Her father, Abraham Hurwitz, was a founding member of Yeshiva University.
Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, voiced George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld. Steinbrenner, the former owner of the New York Yankees, was depicted only from the back (therefore never seeing his face) during the seasons where George Costanza worked for the Yankees.
Paul Anthony Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics, was denied a position at Harvard University’s Economic department in 1948 during the era in which a quota system at elite college and universities limited the number of Jewish students. He went on to teach at MIT where he was instrumental in turning its Department of Economics into a world-renowned institution. His nephew, Larry Summers, later served as the 27th president of Harvard University from 2001-2006. Summers, also an economist, currently serves under President Barack Obama as the Director of the White House’s National Economic Council. Both Summers (undergraduate at MIT) and Samuelson (University of Chicago) entered college at age 16.
Oral history projects are an important way to document and preserve the history of your community and connect generations. Audio and video recordings, as well as transcribed interviews, provide rich cultural and contextual details that usually don’t make the pages of history books. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life's own Oral History Program has just added a new collection of video interview excerpts to the website, as well as the first chapters of our do-it-yourself Oral History Guide.
Engaging Your Children’s Schools
Schools are often interested in educating their communities about heritage months and the diversity they represent. Talk to your child’s principal about including Jewish American Heritage Month in their morning announcements or in the classroom. If your child is old enough, get him or her involved. We will post fun facts, trivia, and short biographies of important Jewish Americans on this page every day during May. The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities is a great resource to learn more about your town’s Jewish heritage.
Hit the Books
Jewish American Heritage Month is a great time to look into expanding your congregational library or local library’s collection of Jewish themed books. The list of books below can be used for a range of activities, including book club discussions, library programs, children’s programs, or just as additions to a congregational library. Use the following list of programs to get started and please contact us for further program write-ups or ideas.
Libraries often have donation wish-lists that may include Jewish-themed literature or you can approach librarians and ask if they will accept donations. Encourage your local library to highlight Jewish American Heritage Month by displaying themed books in May. Below is a list of book suggestions to get you started. If you have any book recommendations, email email@example.com.
Suggest to your congregation, sisterhood, or youth group to choose a book with Jewish content to all read together. This would also be a great program to do with your child’s class at school!
Book clubs are popular among all ages. If you are a member of one, suggest a Jewish themed book to be read during May. You can even start a book club centered on a Jewish theme. If you are already a member of a book club that has read a great Jewish book, or if you just have a suggestion, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Golden Land by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Experience the achievements of American Jews through interactive removable documents and artifacts.
- From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America edited by Michael W. Grunberger
Compiled in celebration of the anniversary of 350 years of Jewish Life and an exhibit put on by the Library of Congress in 2004
- The Peddler’s Grandson by Edward Cohen
A stirring memoir about Jewish life in the heart of the Bible Belt – Jackson, Mississippi. Edward Cohen tells his deeply personal account of growing up an outsider and his vibrant family story of three generations of American Jews.
- G.I. Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation by Deborah Dash Moore
A powerful, intimate portrayal of how military service in WWII transformed a generation of Jews, reshaping Jewish life in American.
- The Provincials by Eli Evans
A classic portrait of Jews in the South that weaves together chapters of the author’s recollections from his youth in North Carolina and chapters that explore the experiences of Jews in many cities and small towns across the South.
- Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South by Marcie Cohen Ferris
In a culinary journey through the Jewish South, Arkansas native Ferris explores how southern Jews embraced, avoided, and adapted southern food and, in the process, have found themselves at home.
- American Judaism by Jonathan Sarna
A comprehensive history of American Judaism that traces its origins in the colonial era through its present day while telling the story of individuals struggling to remain Jewish while also becoming American.
- The Landsman by Peter Melman
The page turning work of historical fiction tells the story of Elias Abrams who leaves his sordid New Orleans home to enlist in the 3rd Louisiana Infantry, leaving behind a murder that threatens to unravel his world.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
This New York Times Best Selling novel follows the lives of the title characters, a Czech artist named Joe Kavalier and a Brooklyn-born writer named Sam Clay—both Jewish—before, during, and after World War II. Kavalier and Clay become major figures in the comics industry during its "Golden Age."
- The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Roth balances personal, domestic, and national events in a novel that re-imagines history by positing a thesis that aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940 and explores what can happen when a government limits religious liberties in the name of national interest.
- Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber
This children’s picture book illustrates the true, heart-warming story about a Jewish Yankee soldier joining a southern family’s Passover meal shows how common values can overcome differences.
Check out our online Peddler’s Cart to purchase some of these titles.
Jewish American Heritage Month Website:
Academic Guide to Jewish History – a database of major print and internet scholarly resources
American Jewish Archives
American Jewish Historical Society
Center for Jewish History
The Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History
Council of American Jewish Museums
The Jewish Daily Forward
The Jewish Americans PBS series
Jewish Women’s Archive
National Museum of American Jewish History – Only in America Online Exhibit
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum