Opening on Election Day, NYC exhibit traces global history of Jews’ civil rights
‘How Jews Became Citizens’ at NYC’s Center for Jewish History gives access to a trove of ancient documents showing the ever-changing status of local Jewish communities
NEW YORK — Two months after graduating from Princeton University in 1959, Sid Lapidus found himself in London. While peering through the dusty window of a bookshop one summer afternoon, he spied a 1792 edition of Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man.” He had to have it.
That five-dollar purchase launched Lapidus on a lifelong quest to collect rare books and pamphlets, many of which would focus on the expansion of civil rights for Jews.
“I’ve always been interested in rights and liberties and how they developed. Collecting has been a wonderful, intellectual voyage of discovery,” Lapidus told The Times of Israel.
Now a slice of that collection is on display in a new exhibit at New York City’s Center for Jewish History: “How Jews Became Citizens: Highlights from the Sid Lapidus Collection.” By recounting the story of European Jewry’s pursuit of rights, the exhibit considers what citizenship means in 2022. Not coincidentally, it opens on November 8, midterm Election Day in the United States.
“I hope the story of this exhibition will surprise visitors in all the right ways. I hope they will understand the Jews were not always citizens across the globe and that citizenship requires us to be engaged actors who continue to reassert our rights and petition the government when necessary to honor those rights,” said Ivy Weingram, the exhibit’s curator.
A self-described bibliophile, Lapidus amassed over 4,000 rare books and pamphlets during his decades of hunting. Although he’s donated most of it to various institutions, including Princeton University and the American Antiquarian Society, he’s given nearly 150 rare books and pamphlets to the Center for Jewish History (CJH). That material, which is being digitized, centers on the intersection of Jewish life and Enlightenment ideals.
“The collection shows how at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century the governments in England and France began waking up to the fact that Jews were an integral part of their community,” said Lapidus, a CJH board member and chair of the American Jewish Historical Society.
One of the best illustrations of this is Edward Nicholas’s 1648 “An Apology for the honorable nation of the Jews, and all the sons of Israel,” Weingram said.
The parchment urged Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, to re-admit the Jews, who had been expelled by King Edward I in 1290. And while Jews were readmitted in 1658 and could practice more openly under Cromwell, they didn’t gain full rights until 1890.
“The text is important because it shows how emancipation was often two steps forward and one step back. Rights were given and rights were taken away. They were never given in one grand moment,” Weingram said.
Born in Brooklyn, Lapidus moved to New Rochelle, New York, shortly after his bar mitzvah at the age of 13.
Every morning he walked past the Thomas Paine cottage on his way to New Rochelle High School. The Revolutionary War hero and author of “Common Sense” lived in the saltbox-style house from 1802 to 1806. It’s also where Paine penned his last pamphlet, “Constitutional Reform, to the Citizens of Pennsylvania, on the Proposal for Calling a Convention.”
The walk sparked in Lapidus a deep admiration for Paine, which eventually ignited his passion for collecting.
“Thomas Paine was my hero. He spoke of freedom and freedom is what counts,” Lapidus said. Seated behind his desk in his office at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, he pointed out his mousepad, emblazoned with Paine’s likeness.
Visitors to CJH will also see the “Hebraic Canticle.” The calligraphed text from Metz, France, speaks to the tightrope Jews had to walk to simply try to exist in a host country, Weingram said.
“It speaks to me because even while the government passed harsh laws that enforced Jews’ inferior status, the synagogue was including prayers for the royal family,” Weingram said.
And while Napoleon extended citizenship to Jews in France and the regions he conquered; he questioned their allegiance. To put his mind at ease he commanded notable Jewish people from across France to come to Paris and answer a questionnaire.
“He essentially put them on the spot and challenged them to explain how they could be Jewish and uphold ideals of France,” Weingram said of the 1807 “Transactions of the Parisian Sanhedrim, or Acts of the Assembly.”
As Gavriel Rosenfeld, president of CJH and professor of history at Fairfield University sees it, the exhibit holds a mirror to the continued fight for rights, whether it’s fighting against voter suppression or pushing back against the centuries-old antisemitic trope of dual loyalties.
“My own take is the exhibit is significant because liberals and people say the arc of history bends towards justice. The exhibit offers a sobering reminder of how long it really takes,” Rosenfeld said.
For example, in his 1781 “On the civil improvement of the Jews,” the German historian and philosopher Christian Wilhelm von Dohm implored Frederick the Great to treat Jews as human beings and give them equal rights. The Jewish community would have to wait. Full rights weren’t granted until the German states unified in 1869.
More to the point, those rights lasted for just over 60 years — until the Nazis assumed power, Rosenfeld said.
“That document [von Dohm] is a sobering reminder that what is given can be taken away. I hope people who see that are galvanized to political vigilance and defend Enlightenment principles that are under siege today,” he said.
Many of the pieces in Lapidus’s collection are from anonymous or little-known authors. Always more interested in content than the creator, Lapidus considers a piece valuable for how it addresses fundamental freedoms.
It’s a theme that resonates with him today.
“For me and my generation growing up in America post-World War II, the opportunities exploded. We learned not take anything for granted, and I want to make sure that continues,” Lapidus said.
“How Jews Became Citizens” is on display at The Center for Jewish History in New York City from November 8, 2022 — February 28, 2023.
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