Picks and Pans Review: Jewish Life in America

updated 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Evocative but frustratingly flawed, this traveling exhibit tells the story—in prints, paintings and photographs—of 300 years of Jewish experience in the New World. Most of that experience is reflected in the show's title, Jewish Life in America: Fulfilling the American Dream. Starting with 23 Jews arriving in New Amsterdam in 1654 after fleeing Portuguese-controlled Brazil, it ends showing immigrants from the Soviet Union today, when there are an estimated six million American Jews. The show, now at Meridian House in Washington, D.C. and scheduled to tour several U.S. cities, is arranged chronologically. The first section, 1654-1819: A Few Among the First Settlers, includes Gilbert Stuart's oil portrait of Colonel Isaac Franks, who served under George Washington. The treatment of this painting, though, points out the show's weaknesses. Why did Stuart, who rendered perhaps the most popular portrait of Washington, paint the Jewish officer? (Those enterprising enough to do further research will learn that Franks served on Washington's personal staff and in 1793 sheltered the first President during a Philadelphia yellow-fever epidemic.) Many arresting visual images are undercut by lack of explanation. Still, there is much worth seeing: engrossing family portraits, 18th-and 19th-century miniatures, Ellis Island scenes. Of particular interest are dramatic portraits of circa-1900 Russian immigrants done by photographer Lewis Hine. Also fascinating are photos of some famous American Jews, from Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein to Edward G. Robinson and Mark Spitz. Taped music serves as background to each historical period; the songs are as diverse as Mahalia Jackson's We Shall Overcome and Elvis Presley's Hound Dog. The show is at the Meridian until Labor Day. Over the next year it will travel to Palm Beach, Fla., New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Berkeley, Calif.

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