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Society traces Jewish-American experience at Manhattan facility

Sama Jan, a member of the New York

Sama Jan, a member of the New York Adventure Club, checks out the new, interactive baseball exhibit at the American Jewish Historical Society on West 16th Street in Manhattan on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan is the nation’s oldest ethnic and cultural archive that traces the Jewish-American experience from 1654 to the Soviet Jewry immigration movement.

Thousands of books, letters and government documents totaling 25 million, along with century old photographs depicting religious, family, economic and political life, is preserved in the eight-story facility on 16th Street. There dozens of librarians, archivists and conservationists restore Jewish records — including baseball memorabilia that pays tribute to Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax — a famed Jewish baseball player.

“Baseball helped make them Americans,” said Rachel Lithgow, executive director. Yiddish newspapers at the time published articles that explained the game to newly arrived Jewish immigrants.

“In Yiddish, the ‘Forward’ wrote the rules of the game and how to be a Yankee Doodle. They even had a diagram of a baseball diamond,” Lithgow said.

Currently on exhibit is the Dodger jersey of Sandy Koufax and the Louisville Slugger baseball bat used by first baseman Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers. Both players were born in New York City — Koufax in Brooklyn, Greenberg in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village — and made their mark on baseball during the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish children were not encouraged to play sports — “it was not typical,” Lithgow said, adding they were made to study the Torah instead. But in the 1950s, rabbis started to allow their students to use transistor radios to listen to the Dodger games, she said.

Thousands of silver gelatin photographs depicting Jewish life at summer camp, the synagogue and military life — including Jewish-American soldiers in Korea who found time to erect a snow-covered menorah — is being preserved and later transformed into digital images. A climate-controlled room stores thousands of index cards with the names, addresses and military rank of thousands of Jewish-American soldiers.

Inside the conservation lab, Dong Eun Kim, assistant conservationist, unfurls a 1927 Brooklyn graduation photo of Nathan Hale High School students. “Using moisture and a humidification process I can slowly relax the paper without cracking the photo’s surface,” she said as she unveiled the crystal clear picture that was tightly scrolled for decades.

The photograph has the faces of Jewish students but also other immigrant groups and African-Americans. “This is who we are,” said Lithgow of Long Beach. The archives if used “creatively can also tell the history of our times.”

The archives and antiquarian book collection, which has a 16th century Haggadah that sets forth the order of the Passover seder, are available for public viewing. Also open to the public is a genealogy lab of birth records.

The privately funded society has a $2.5 million budget. It is a treasure trove of personal stories of famous Jewish people such as poet Emma Lazarus, whose words “give me your tired and poor” are engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, to the life and times of the first successful Jewish-American bullfighter, Sidney Franklin of Brooklyn.

“It’s nice to learn about history,” said Sama Jan, 35, of Manhattan, a visitor and a member of the New York Adventure Club. “I am scouting places to visit for our group and I thought the society would be an interesting place. Our members are always looking for something special that has historical or cultural value.”


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