By the numbers

As Jews across the country start ringing in the Big 3-5-0, Bay Area Jews plan to get in on the party as well.

One of them is Irvin Ungar. The Burlingame-based rabbi owns Historicana, a dealership of rare Jewish books and manuscripts he established in 1987. Ungar recently published a catalog of 91 pieces of rare American Judaica, some items going as far back as the 17th century. His message is simple: Don’t just mark the 350th anniversary of Jews in America; buy a piece of it too.

On the arts front, the Paul Taylor Dance Company will be touring the Bay Area next spring with “Klezmerbluegrass,” a new modern dance piece celebrating the Jewish American experience. The work was commissioned by the National Foundation of Jewish Culture, and the tour will be one of many official events sanctioned by the national 350th committee.

In Berkeley, the Judah L. Magnes Museum continues running its “Sephardic Horizons” exhibit, which traces the history of the Sephardim through their arrival in the Americas (those first Jews in America 350 years ago were Sephardic).

In addition, the founder of Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica, historian Fred Rosenbaum, will be delivering several lectures. Among the whistlestops on his itinerary in the coming months: Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

But for those who want to keep a piece of Jewish history, Ungar’s the man to call.

“Knowing the 350th was coming up,” recalls Ungar, “I set items aside in the months preceding to have them available for the catalog.” Titled “Long Live the Land of the Free,” the catalogue resembles a piece of Yiddish sheet music, circa 1910, but it actually covers the length and breadth of American Jewish history.

Ungar’s Historicana gallery, which is open by appointment, is located on the second floor of his home — itself somewhat of a museum-piece, built in 1911 and officially listed as a historical building.

Ungar’s collection includes the first Hebrew book to describe the discovery of America, published in 1691, and the first Hebrew Bible printed in the Americas, in 1762. There’s also an original “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Enjoy Levy’s Real Jewish Rye” poster from the clever New York subway campaign of the 1960s.

The catalog not only lists the items chronologically but offers detailed descriptions as well, making the booklet a kind of timeline primer on the history of Jews in America.

“I had a strong educational background and a love of Jewish history,” says Ungar, a former associate rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom. “That all came to play in this catalog. It’s not merely a catalog of items of historic interest, but it also educates people.”

So among the authentic Civil War-era newspapers and Yiddish language maps of the United States (circa 1917), the catalog’s margins include fascinating facts and figures of Jewish life in America. Example: In 1825, the American city with the largest Jewish population was Charleston, S.C., with 700.

Many of the items for sale will cost collectors a pretty penny (one rare 1845 Torah is priced to move at $12,500). But Ungar says that every piece is museum-worthy and most will likely wind up in the hands of serious collectors who understand their historical value.

Ungar counts himself one of them. The New Jersey native had been a pulpit rabbi in New York and the South Bay before switching careers.

So which catalogue item is his personal favorite? Turns out it’s a copy of George Washington’s famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, here reprinted in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser of Sept. 16, 1790.

Washington wrote that the government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and went on to express his good will toward the Jews of America.

Over the centuries, Washington’s wish has largely come to pass. Now, with the 350th anniversary here, synagogues and Jewish community institutions have been spreading the word among their constituents about the historic milestone.


American Jewry at 350

350 years in America

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.