May: Jewish American Heritage Month

Each May, EDSITEment celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month by pointing to the rich array of educational resources on this subject.

Many of the programs listed below are films which appeared on PBS as stand-alone specials or as part of long-running series such as American Experience and American Masters. Many of them have been funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities over the past decades. Each of them is accompanied by a multimedia website or Web page, which extends the life of the program with video clips, images, and interactives that can be used by teachers in their classroom or students doing research.

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 EDSITEMent reviewed  Bill of Rights Institute has lesson in which  students can read and  compare the two letters via an interactive.  A related lesson plan on Washington and Religious Liberty is available on the NEH-funded website Rediscovering George Washington. 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 can be celebrated in this feature.

Becoming Jewish Americans

A good place to begin if one wants to understand Jewish life in America would be The Jewish Americans, recently broadcast on PBS stations and partially funded by NEH. This series offers a treasure trove of video clips, images, and student interactives on such topics as the Diaspora, which sent millions of Jews to the United Statesthe challenges of assimilationthe rise of immigrants from street peddlers on the lower East Side of New York city to sophisticated and wealthy merchants in the fashion industry, and the critical role that philanthropic organizations and education plays in the Jewish American community. The witty essayist Joseph Epstein wrote about this program in his article “Hebrew National” for Humanities magazine.

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. Another article from Humanities, “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 relatively well-known figures such as Emma Goldman, the passionate radical, or touch on the historic actions of a 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 Klu 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.

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 mid point of the century or how Annie Leibovitz is still turning 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.”


NEH’s long partnership with Ken Burns has led to the production of award-winning series, including Baseball, in which the roles of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, two Jewish Americans who excelled at the national pastime, are featured. Further resources on these and other sports legends can be found on the already mentioned websites Jews in America: Our Story and The Jewish Americans.

Western Civilization

Finally, for a more comprehensive investigation of the way the Jewish people have interacted with Western culture, see Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, a vintage PBS program partially funded by the NEH that traces Jewish history from its origins to the present day, and the new, grittier television version of The Diary of Anne Frank, that airs in May 2010 on PBS Masterpiece Theatre. (Note that the entire film can be viewed online for a limited time). This latest version of the book, which is required reading in many secondary school curricula around the country, includes parts of Anne’s diary originally edited out by her father and is filmed in a way that makes the tiny space inhabited by eight people and the fear occasioned by furtive nature of the living arrangements palpable and unsentimental. 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.

PBS American Experience

NEH Supported PBS American Masters

Other PBS Programs Funded by NEH

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