Jewish American Heritage Month of May is being honored with events at the Library of Congress, National Archives, Kennedy Center, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others.
It coincides with the 70th anniversary of American forces liberation of Dachau concentration camp and its death march.
(And it coincides also with anti-Semitic vandalism this month at a French Jewish cemetery, Vienna’s Sigmund Freud Museum and a Polish watchdog agency on anti-Semitism, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported May 15: In Lille, France on May 10, vandals smashed and poured paint on at least six tombstones at a Jewish cemetery. In Vienna earlier in May, attackers smashed three of the Freud museum’s display windows and scrawled an anti-Semitic comment in blue marker near one of the vandalized displays. In the Polish town of Tarnow near Krakow, vandals broke an ornate mezuzah off the doorframe of the newly-opened office of the Antyschematy 2 nonprofit group, which combats anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, the JTA said.)
President Obama referred to this “deeply disturbing” rise in anti-Semitism when he addressed D.C.’s Adas Israel on May 22 — the fourth U.S. President ever to address a congregation at an American synagogue.
“We know from our history they cannot be ignored. Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire. And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread,” the President said.
He termed himself an “honorary member of the tribe.” He noted that he has hosted seven Seders at the White House and “been advised by two Jewish chiefs of staff.” He said that “Jewish values” have guided him in his own life.
Obama also referred to the anti-Semitic attacks in his proclamation of Jewish American Heritage Month, “As we celebrate the rich heritage of the Jewish American community, it is impossible to separate their accomplishments from the struggles of Jewish people around the world.”
The President noted, “As tragic events show us all too often, Jewish communities continue to confront hostility and bigotry, including in America. Our Nation shares an obligation to condemn and combat anti-Semitism and hatred wherever it exists, and we remain committed to standing against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism in all its forms, including in the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust.”
In the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “First Person: Conversations with Survivors” program, Wednesdays and Thursdays May to Aug. 13, Holocaust survivors tell their personal stories and answer questions. For a full schedule of the free, hour-long intriguing talks, and information about the presenters, click here. Also, its current exhibit is “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust.”
Here are many Jewish American Heritage Month events, listed in chronological order:
- Canadian filmmaker Joe Balass (http://www.compassproductions.ca/) showed and discussed his film “Baghdad Twist” free at 12:30 P.M., at the Pickford Theater in the Library of Congress’s Madison Building. Through Balass’s family’s history, the film documents the disappearance of Iraq’s Jewish community in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. The documentary is a co-presentation with the Washington Jewish Film Festival and Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.
Its images flash between well-dressed Iraqi Jews dancing the twist in the 1960s, thousands of Iraqi Arabs mobbing Baghdad streets to celebrate the public hanging of two Jews, and snow piled high in Montreal, where his family finally escaped. His father, like many other Iraqi Jews, had been arrested and questioned three times before the family fled. “We were scared to death,” says his mother Valentine in the documentary. “If we stay, we’re dead.” But despite the many difficulties, she has never questioned her identity. “I was Iraqi and that’s that. I was a Jewish Iraqi.”
Balass noted that 150,000 to 180,000 Jews had lived in Iraq until the mid-20th century, when the vast majority began fleeing for their lives, having to leave everything behind. Now, there are only a handful, if any Jews in Iraq.
- That night, Balass screened and discussed another of his documentaries, “The Length of the Alphabet” at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. It’s a portrait of Iraqi-Jewish Canadian author Naïm Kattan, from his youth in Baghdad to his studies in France and his move to Montreal in the 1950s where he flourished, and even earned the Order of Canada. Tickets are $12.50.
(The Iraqi Jewish Archive — thousands of precious ancient books and documents discovered by a U.S. Army team in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters — was painstakingly restored for ten years by the National Archives, and exhibited at the Archives in 2013.)
- Historian Jonathan D. Sarna discussed and signed his newest book, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” (Thomas Dunne Books), with journalist and author Steven V. Roberts at 7 P.M. at the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater and on YouTube. (Here’s the link for other National Archives events on YouTube).
The book is the first look at Lincoln’s extraordinary relationship with Jews. Lincoln “befriended Jews, promoted Jewish equality, appointed numerous Jews to public office, and had Jewish advisors and supporters,” according to the National Archives. “The book reveals how Lincoln’s remarkable relationship with American Jews impacted both his path to the presidency and his policy decisions as president.”
During Lincoln’s lifetime, the number of Jews in America increased more than five-fold, from about 3,000 to more than 150,000, due mainly to immigration from central Europe. “Many Americans, including members of Lincoln’s cabinet and many of his top generals during the Civil War, were alarmed by this development and treated Jews as second-class citizens…” Sarna says. But Lincoln “exhibited precisely the opposite tendency.”
Sarna adds, “Through his actions and his rhetoric — replacing ‘Christian nation,’ for example, with ‘this nation under God’ — he embraced Jews as insiders.”
The free event, also part of the National Archives’ commemoration of the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, was presented in partnership with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, co-edited “Jews and the Civil War, A Reader” (NYU Press) — about the eight to ten thousand Jews who fought in the Civil War. The renowned scholar is best-known for his classic book, “American Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press).
- Also on May 7 at 7:30 P.M. at Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, “Before The Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe,” was performed by The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory of Canada.)
“The Nazi rise to power in 1933 cut short the careers of a generation of Jewish composers just entering their prime. Those who survived found their music branded as racially impure and banned from the concert hall,” says the concert’s celebrated presenters, Pro Musica Hebraica. “Even after the war, the shadows of Nazism continued to engulf these composers… three titans of the post-World War I generation of European Jewish composers — Viennese romantic Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Polish modernist Jerzy Fitelberg, and Italian neoclassicist Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco. Tickets are $44.
Korngold is best-known for pioneering a new art form of symphonic film score after moving to Hollywood in 1934. He won an Oscar for his original score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Pro Musica Hebraica was co-founded by Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist and political commentator Charles Krauthammer and his artist wife, Robyn.
- “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” featuring interviews with Harry Belafonte, Leonard Nimoy, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell and others, tells the history of the popular Jewish party song. It will be shown free at noon, at the Library of Congress Pickford Theater.
“It’s to music what the bagel is to food – a Jewish staple that has transcended its origins and become a worldwide hit,” the Library says. “Bob Dylan sang it — Elvis, too.”
Noting that the title means “Let us rejoice,” Belafonte says, “there’s no better song to leave an evening with. ‘Hava Nagila’ tells us who we should be and what we, in a fundamental sense, aspire to be — peoples of love and joy and peace.”
- Geneologist Tammy Hepps will discuss the history of the Jewish community within little Homestead, Penn. Its synagogue celebrated its 120th anniversary last year. Hepps’ talk, “In Search of a Usable Past: Reconstructing the Jewish History of Homestead, Pennsylvania,” is free at noon at the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, in the ornate African and Middle Eastern Division Reading Room.
As President Obama said in his proclamation, “From our Nation’s earliest days, Jewish Americans have been a critical part of our story. In the face of unspeakable discrimination and adversity, they have fought tirelessly to realize their piece of the American dream … Jewish Americans represent a link in an unbroken chain of perseverance.”