Three new exhibitions focusing on Jewish artists who have contributed to the culture of the United States and the world are traveling the country, including stops in the Deep South starting this coming month.
The three exhibits were developed by Nextbook, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Jewish literature, culture and ideas, and the American Library Association. The most widely distributed exhibit will be “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, 1910-1965,” which will open at the library at Troy University, Dothan, on July 13, and be on display through Aug. 26.
The only Mississippi venue will be the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, from July 14 to Aug. 25. The exhibit will then be at the N.E. Miles Library at Birmingham-Southern College from Sept. 7 to Oct. 21, and the Vermillion Parish Library in Abbeville, La., from Nov. 2 to Dec. 23.
Songs such as “As Time Goes By,” “It Had to Be You,” and “Over the Rainbow” have captivated generations of audiences and remain beloved musical icons of American popular culture. The best musical artists of the time combined a genius for melody, a talent for pairing melody with the perfect words, and an ability to connect with a wide audience. A remarkably high percentage of them were Jewish, from families that had immigrated to America in the 1800s or fled pogroms and persecution in Europe at the turn of the century. The exhibit tells their story, using lively and striking images from Broadway musicals, classic films, posters, and personal collections.
During their heyday between 1910 and 1965, songs from the great American songbook were essential to the success of Broadway musicals, Hollywood films, the jazz scene, Big Bands, popular vocalists, and night clubs. The sky was the limit for talented young people with big imaginations — young people such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, and George Gershwin.
Irving Berlin, a cantor’s son, had no formal music training and could play piano in only one key, but he was one of the few composers who were talented at writing both music and lyrics. Berlin’s “God Bless America,” “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” have become American anthems. Jerome Kern composed the melodies for some of the world’s most revered love songs — “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and the saucy “A Fine Romance.”
“The King and I,” “Oklahoma,” and “South Pacific” are only a few of the enduring American musicals created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. George Gershwin wrote jazz-inflected orchestral pieces that bridged the gap between classical and popular music. His “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” are still breathtaking to hear.
The Troy exhibition will include lectures by Kenneth Kanter and Tom Nadar, with the schedule to be announced. Exhibit partners are Temple Emanu-El, the Houston Love Memorial Library, and Larry Blumberg and Associates.
Maurice Sendak Exhibit
From July 6 to Aug. 19, the University of Southern Mississippi Library in Hattiesburg will host “In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak” — appropriately so, as there is a collection of Sendak’s papers in the university’s de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.
Sendak’s typically American childhood in New York City inspired many of his most beloved books, such as “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.” Illustrations in those works are populated with friends, family, and the sights, sounds and smells of New York in the 1930s. But Sendak was also drawn to photos of ancestors, and he developed a fascination with the shtetl world of European Jews.
This exhibit, curated by Patrick Rodgers of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, reveals the push and pull of New and Old Worlds in Sendak’s work and shows how Sendak’s artistic journey has led him deeper into his own family’s history and his Jewish identity.
The Sendak exhibit also has stops in Marietta and Valdosta, Ga.; Gainesville, Fla.; and Camden, Tenn.
Emma Lazarus Exhibit in Athens
“Emma Lazarus: Voice of Liberty, Voice of Conscience” will be in two area locations. From July 6 to Aug. 19, it will be at the John Pace Library at the University of West Florida in Pensacola; and at the Athens-Limestone Public Library in Athens, Ala., from Oct. 26 to Dec. 16.
Emma Lazarus was a fourth-generation American from a prominent Jewish family in New York City, a poet, critic, advocate for the poor, early feminist, and champion of immigrants and refugees. This exhibit, curated by Lazarus biographer Esther Schor, Princeton University, traces Lazarus’s life, intellectual development, work, and lasting influence, especially the iconic words of her poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved on a plaque now located in the Statue of Liberty Museum: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Schor said Lazarus “showed America how to become more generous, more noble, and more just. Her passion for justice lives on whenever we Americans dedicate ourselves to welcoming immigrants, training and educating the poor, and celebrating diversity.”
Columbus Programs Explore Mississippi Jewish History
The Columbus-Lowndes Public Library has developed a large series of programs in conjunction with the exhibit.
“We are pleased that the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library was chosen as a site for this exhibit about a fascinating period of American popular music history,” said Director Alice Shands. “The many Jewish composers who helped to create the great American Songbook will never be forgotten. Their compositions are a chronicle of American culture and history and their musical genius has made them immortal. We hope the whole community will be able to see the exhibit and attend some of the programs we have planned to celebrate and enjoy their lives and their songs.”
The grand opening will be July 14 at 5 p.m. with jazz music from composers featured in the exhibit, performed by members of The State Messengers. At 6 p.m., Bob Schwartz of Tupelo will present “Mississippi: The Secret Home of American Jewish Song.” While the featured composers weren’t from Mississippi and likely never visited, they had a “musical and lyrical kinship with American music born in Mississippi.”
On July 18 at 6 p.m. Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson will present “The History of the Jews in Mississippi.” Rockoff is also president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
On Aug. 4 at noon, Charles Yarborough will present “Columbus History: Jewish Perspectives,” examining Jewish community contributions to the Columbus area. On Aug. 7 at 5 p.m., he will lead a walking tour of local Jewish history, concentrating on 16 buildings and monuments of Jewish significance.
The lectures end with “Whoso Seeketh Her Early: Jewish Families and the Growth of Women’s Education in Columbus” on Aug. 19 at 12:15 p.m. Bridget Pieschel will discuss the Jewish families in Columbus who supported the Columbus Female Institute and the Industrial Institute and College. She will discuss the Wiener family of Montgomery County (around Winona), whose daughter, Mathilde, or “Tillie” in 1889 was a member of the first graduating class of the II & C. She will also highlight the family of influential physical education professor Emma Ody Pohl, whose father, Theodore, was a Greenville merchant and elected official. The Pohls were all active members of the Hebrew Union Temple in Greenville.
Movie screenings will also focus on films with songs by the Jewish composers, or influenced by them. The series begins with a picnic and screening of “The Wizard of Oz,” July 28 at 3 p.m. At the end of the movie, prizes will be given for best children’s costume and best adult costume, and every child will receive a special treat for attending.
Monday Movie Matinees begin Aug. 1 at 2 p.m., with “Show Boat.” Aug. 8 will feature “Funny Face,” and “West Side Story” on Aug. 15. The series ends on Aug. 22 with “Girl Crazy.”
All library events are free and open to the community.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Starkville Community Theatre will present “Liner Notes: From Tin Pan Alley to Today,” July 21 to 30, at The Playhouse on Main in Starkville. Tickets are $25, and shows are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays to Sundays.