May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a time in our country when we recognize and celebrate the unique contributions that Jewish Americans have made to our history. We do so to raise awareness and dispel harmful prejudices.
Like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, or JAHM, recognizes the notable contributions American Jews have made to the United States throughout its history. This year, we are celebrating the contributions Jewish entertainers have made to American culture.
For generations, Jewish entertainers have made us laugh and moved us to tears through their creative work. They’ve also taught us important life lessons, making us think about the messages within the entertainment. They’ve helped audiences ponder some of life’s toughest issues – bigotry and tolerance, perseverance and determination, honesty and forgiveness.
As an audience, we often recognize the entertainers but sometimes lose sight of the people behind the scenes – the directors, producers, writers and composers – whose vision is what these entertainers bring to life. For generations, Jewish Americans’ words and music have leapt from the page to the stage, bringing us into the worlds of generations past, into the traditions of other cultures and into the living rooms of families beyond our own.
Leonard Bernstein showed us how vulnerable life can be when prejudice and hatred prevail over love. In “West Side Story,” Bernstein brought ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in to modern times, showing us through song that we can respect each other even if we come from different backgrounds or nationalities.
Steven Spielberg brought us closer to the horrors of the Holocaust when he introduced us to a man named Oskar Schindler. In his film “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg brought a relatively unknown Oskar Schindler to life for the generations who followed him, showing us how the compassion of an ordinary man could triumph over prejudice. Spielberg once said “the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it, so that maybe someday, kindness will be a natural reflex and not just a random act.”
Nora Ephron made a name for herself first as a journalist and then as an award-winning screen writer, leaving us iconic movies such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. She also made us laugh with her books full of humorous insights and observations about the world around us.
In “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” producer David Wolper took us on a journey of imagination while teaching us – and our children – a valuable lesson about greed and honesty. He showed us how the greatest rewards can sometimes come from the simplest acts.
How can we forget Norman Lear’s iconic sitcom, “All In The Family?” Each week, Americans were given a front row seat on Archie Bunker’s couch. Norman Lear used humor to show us how prejudice and bigotry can live right next door. However, as the times changed, so did Archie.
And our society changed right along with him. And now, Steven Levitan brings us “Modern Family” – a new look at how our society has evolved throughout the generations, bringing blended-families and nontraditional families to primetime network television.
Social responsibility is a basic tenet of a traditional Jewish upbringing. Judaism teaches us to give back to our community, as we work to repair the world. I believe Jewish artists – these writers, directors, producers and composers – give back to our society each and every time we enjoy their films, watch their shows or sing along to a familiar tune. We take away a message from their works, whether it’s that a single good deed may save a generation or how returning that “Everlasting Gobstopper” can lead to a great reward.
So the text time you turn on your TV or go to watch a play or open a book, look for the lesson between the laughs. If we, as a nation, are to prepare our children for the challenges that lie ahead, then teaching diversity, tolerance and respect is a fundamental part of that promise. Together, we can help achieve this goal with the celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month.
For more information about the history of Jewish life in America, Jewish American Heritage Month, or the many events occurring in May throughout the country, you can visit the official Jewish American Heritage Month website, www.jewishheritagemonth. gov or www.jahm.us.
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