Jewish Life in America features full range of Jewish American experience

For many American Jews, life in the United States began in New York Harbor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as they sought refuge from persecution in Europe, and later from the horrors of Nazi death camps. The famous lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are from “The New Colossus” by Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus. But as Jewish Life in America, c1654-1954 reveals, the Jewish American experience dates back at least three and a half centuries with the arrival of the first Jews in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later New York), well before there was a United States.

Immigrant couple, a bearded man wearing a cap and his wife wearing a scarf and a floor-length dress sit for a portrait outside of a wood-framed house.

Russian Jewish couple at the Baron de Hirsch-financed Woodbine agricultural settlement in southern New Jersey, circa 1900.

One article from 1915, “The Injustice of the Literacy Test,” originally appearing in The Jewish Immigration Bulletin, shows how little the experience of immigrants to America has changed in over a century. In the article, renowned social activist Jane Addams wrote, “The deplorable part of the whole discussion of immigration is the constant appeal to racial prejudice … While anthropologists have shown … that the most important differences are individual and not racial, it is easy to persuade the person who has no opportunity of really knowing the recent immigrant, that the superficial differences in dress and speech … are evidence of inferiority.”

Primary sources featured in the database have been drawn from the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City, and go beyond the immigrant experience, bringing to life the full range of Jewish American identity and culture from the 17th to the mid-20th century. Contextualizing tools include a chronology of major events, essays by leading scholars, articles from the American Jewish Year Book, a gallery of visual resources, and biographies of important figures. The database offers access to six major organizational collections and twenty-four collections of personal papers (letters, scrapbooks, autobiographies, notebooks, and more).

The collections are a treasure trove of information on:

  • The evolution of early Jewish Settlements in areas such as New York, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia.
  • Structures of support for immigrants from the Old World, differing experiences of immigrants, and immigration strategies adopted at Ellis Island and in Galveston in the late 19th century.
  • The role of Jews in the American War of Independence and the Civil War.
  • The role of the synagogue as a focal point for Jewish communities.
  • The development of Jewish schools and charitable institutions.
  • Westward expansion and the attempts to establish Jewish farms.
  • The Jewish Diaspora from Europe and around the world and dispersal across America.
  • The garment industry, peddling, general stores, finance, and diversification into other industries.
  • The development of Judaism in America — Reformed, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox — including patterns of immigration and societal changes.
  • Reaching out to Jewish communities around the world, especially to Russia, Romania, Germany, and Eastern Europe.
  • American Jewish involvement in the Spanish-American War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
  • Involvement in Civil Rights and Minority Rights issues.

For details about these collections please refer to the Guide to Archival Collections in the site’s online User Guide, and please visit the Library A-Z Databases list for other online resources about the Jewish American experience.

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