Constellations of Atlantic Jewish History, 1555-1890
The Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica
Exhibited February 12,2015 - June 9, 2015 in the Penn Libraries’ Goldstein Family Gallery

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During the 16th century and continuing over four centuries, Jews and their descendants forged extensive networks of kinship, commerce, and culture around the Atlantic coasts of Europe, Africa, South and North America, and beyond. The history of these Atlantic Jewries spans generations of colonization, revolutionary wars, cultural transformations, and continental crossings. Their relationships transcended imperial, national, religious and racial boundaries even as their paths to religious freedom and citizenship within politically controlled spaces advanced unevenly. Jews had to fight for their rights and respect as equal members of the communities in which they lived; they also had to confront the wrongs of slavery and racism in the societies in which they were embedded. Jews fought in and survived the violence and upheaval caused by wars. And whether in times of war or peace, they continued to form families, build religious and charitable institutions, self-consciously resist threats of radical assimilation, and creatively address pressures for religious change.

Many crossed the Atlantic for economic opportunities; others to escape oppressive conditions in their native lands. Economic life was fraught with uncertainty; while some prospered, others suffered. Cycles of boom and bust, success and failure afflicted everyone. Amidst sweeping change and uncertainty, optimism and anxiety, faith and doubt, new publishing ventures emerged and new forms of reading functioned as a social glue and as a calming balm connecting Jews and non-Jews of diverse backgrounds. In the nineteenth century, by foot, mule, horse, wagon, and rail thousands of Jews moved further inland settling across the Continental Americas until they reached the Pacific Ocean. They also came west by ship through the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico and around the southern tip of South America heading north to Latin America and the Pacific coast of the United States. Even as they reached the Pacific, Jews living in the Americas and across the Atlantic remained intimately connected to each other and part of an Atlantic Jewish historical and cultural geography.

The Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica teaches us about the everyday lives and businesses of these Atlantic Jewries and their changing perceptions and experiences of space and time - both as Jews and as members of their larger societies. As you go through this exhibition, thus, you may wish to don metaphorically an invention of Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin: a pair of bi-focals. These near and far-sighted spectacles hopefully will help disclose the particular and universal aspects of Atlantic Jewish history on display. The collection, in short, is more than the sum of its parts. It is the constellation of unlimited potential connections among its many pieces. To appreciate fully its significance and complexity requires an intensive immersion in its details and a keen awareness of the contexts in which each item first belonged. This exhibition, consisting of only a tiny sample of over 11,000 items, also, hopefully will help the viewer to better appreciate the decades of effort the Kaplans devoted to building a scholarly resource of lasting worth.