by Samuel D. Gruber
Who knew? Since 2006, May is officially Jewish American Heritage Month. Is this an opportunity to celebrate, or have we (or the US government) created a new calendar ghetto in which to isolate American Jewish Heritage from the rest of the year's events? Something similar happened with Black History - every media outlet saves its best stories of African American history and culture for February.
According to the official Jewish American Heritage Month website:
On April 20, 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed that May would be Jewish American Heritage Month. The announcement was the crowning achievement in an effort by the Jewish Museum of Florida and South Florida Jewish community leaders that resulted in resolutions introduced by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania urging the president to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture. The resolutions passed unanimously, first in the House of Representatives in December 2005 and later in the Senate in February 2006.
The month of May was chosen due to the highly successful celebration of the 350th Anniversary of American Jewish History in May 2004, which was organized by the Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History. This coalition was composed of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration.
Leading the way in implementation of the annual celebration is the Jewish American Heritage Month Coalition, formed in March 2007 and convened by United Jewish Communities, the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and the American Jewish Historical Society.
About the Site
This Web portal is a collaborative project of the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Even though I think celebratory months like this are silly - I will not deny the accomplishments of the participating institutions in improving our knowledge of American Jewish History and their taking steps to protect and preserve valuable archives and material culture collections. PLEASE DO look at the website to see some of the variety of initiatives - many especially featured this month. Visit the websites of the various institutions AND visit and use their facilities (May is a beautiful month to be in Washington, DC).
Ironically, as we celebrate this month, rumors circulate about the possible closing of the historic Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, home of the Klau Library and the American Jewish Archives. For an update on the Cincinnati situation see last weeks article in the Cincinnati Enquirer. In the article, Rabbi David Ellenson is reported as saying that even if HUC moves, it could keep the library and Archives open on the Clifton campus. "I cannot imagine those would be easily replicated anywhere else," said Ellenson "I can envision a scenario in which Cincinnati would be an intellectual center for research. It's not a probability but it is a possibility." Ellenson the first HUC president to be based in New York. HUC has invested millions of dollars over the years in the Library and Archive facilities - who knows what it would cost to replicate the institution in New York or elsewhere.
Severe financial troubles continue to plague New York's Center for Jewish history (touted as the "Jewish Library of Congress" when it opened) and all of its constituent organizations. The recent economic downturn and the Bernie Madoff crimes have hit all American Jewish cultural organizations very hard, but some problems pre-exist these situations and are due to excessive institutional expansion and competition, which has outstripped a committed audience (often leading Jewish organizations to turn to public funding sources for contributions (read: bailouts).
So, as we celebrate American Jewish History this month, we are all encouraged to look at a vibrant past, but we are also so forced to look at an uncertain (at least for institutions) future.