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Jewish- and African-Americans

Three women museum curators have tackled an enormous project: to present the complex relationship between American Jews and African Americans during the period from slavery and arrival at Ellis Island until the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews on display at New York’s Jewish Museum in collaboration with the N.A.A.C.P., highlights both conflicts and cooperation. In this capturing multi-media display of documents, photos, artwork, film clips and music we see Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King speaking together, Black and Jewish women labor organizers, Jews in the movie industry reinforcing racist stereotypes and a Yiddish translation of a Langston Hughes poem.

Despite the efforts of curators Adina Baack, Gretchen Sullivan Sorin and Julie Reiss to include work of women artists, writers and activists, finding women’s voices in this project is a challenge. Covering nearly a century of history, the exhibit limits itself to the most visible and well-documented events which are invariably male. Cooperation or strife between Jewish women and African American women are mentioned only briefly. One can only imagine the fascinating stories behind the few photographs—of women from both communities marching together in the Bronx Meat Strike in 1935 or of an African American maid and the Jewish woman she worked for. Women’s issues, an area in which African American women and Jewish American women have come together to bond and to disagree are not highlighted. Because women are less visible and therefore less constricted by public pressures, women of different communities have often been able to work together more easily than our male counterparts. However the invisibility that allows the space and safety to meet also leaves historical researchers little trace of our dialogues and interactions.

Nevertheless, the exhibit reveals many forgotten intertwining experiences of Jewish and African Americans; Jews and Blacks in the Communist Party, African American soldiers liberating a Nazi concentration camp, parallels between anti-Semitic and racist caricatures in media, common uses of the Hebrew Bible, and the ideological correlations of Pan-Africanism and Zionism.

The exhibit is an important one for Jewish feminists. In the larger context of the collective memory of the people of the United States, American Jewish history, African American history and women’s history are all marginalized. Bridges and Boundaries is another way for women of both communities to hear the silences, retrieve the omissions, and inspire us to continue to work together for change.

On its two year tour, Bridges and Boundaries will appear at the Jewish Museum in New York City; The Jewish Museum, San Francisco; The Strong Museum, Rochester, NY; The Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, Baltimore; National Afro- American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, OH; California Afro-American Museum, Los Angeles; Afro- American Historical and Cultural Museum and National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia; and the Chicago Historical Society.