While most people know protestants came to America for religious freedom and economic opportunities, there is a lesser-known religious group that came over for the same reasons: the Jewish.
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg has acquired several Judaica objects, to help tell this story of early American history.
Janine Skerry, senior metals curator, said there were large Jewish communities in early America in Rhode Island, New York, South Carolina and even as close as Norfolk.
“Most people are astonished by that,” Skerry said. “For many Jewish citizens, the opportunities to live more freely, to practice their faith more freely and to obtain a higher status within their trade or craft or profession — America offered that opportunity in ways the old world didn’t.”
For example, Myer Myers was a Jewish Anglo-American silversmith who became a master of his trade.
“Jews were not allowed to be members of the guilds in London, but he had the good fortune of being born in America and he became one of the top two leading silversmiths in New York in the 18th century,” Skerry said.
The museum’s new artifacts show this history includes a sterling silver and gold Kiddush cup, a silver and gold yad, or Torah pointer, and an alphabet sampler created by a Jewish schoolgirl.
“We’ve really been of the opinion that this collection should tell the story of all early Americans,” said Ronald Hurst, vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “We think of objects as cultural markers that carry information about the people, the places and events of the past.”
The museum’s new yad was crafted sometime between 1843-1844, making it the earliest one of its kind to go on the market in about 20 years, according to Skerry.
“The earliest American yad is later-19th century — 1860s or 1880s I think — and the English ones just don’t come up on the market that often,” Skerry said.
It was made in Birmingham, England, which in the 1800s was a large manufacturing area for luxury goods. Because of this, Skerry said it’s likely the yad could have been used in America at some point.
However, broadening history through objects can be difficult. Skerry said these kinds of artifacts are hard for museums to obtain and they take a long time to track down.
“For the most part, objects that would have been used in a religious service or synagogue-like setting are still in the synagogue today,” Skerry said. “So the opportunity to find something that meets our museum’s parameters is very limited, so we just keep looking.”
As much as the museum wishes to expand it collection, Hurst said Colonial Williamsburg takes the ethical acquisition of objects very seriously.
“For example, items that are of Native American origin have to go through a very fine screen to make it into the collection,” Hurst said.
“Sometimes, we’ve backed off of those things, because even though it would have been a wonderful addition to the collection, everything has got to be completely ethical.”
The Judaica objects are the newest additions to the collection, Hurst said, and it will be up to Colonial Williamsburg to continue its broader storytelling.
“It doesn’t mean in any way we are not going to continue focusing on those other kinds of collections, we do that as well, but we want this to be a collection that lets us tell the stories of all early Americans,” Hurst said.
“I think of the past as a place where everyone, whether they come from generations of American ancestry or they’re newly arrived, we all want to look at the past and want to see themselves in some way,” Skerry said. “What’s really exciting to me is to broaden the awareness that this was a much more diverse society than most people recognize.”
Want to learn more?
These pieces will go on display after the museums’ expansion in 2020. To learn more about the collections or current exhibitions, visit colonialwilliamsburg.com/art-museums.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.