IN 1654, a group of 23 Jews from Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam, a little Dutch colony that a decade later would be renamed New York. Peter Stuyvesant, the governor, didn't want them, but the Dutch West India Company, which ran the settlement, insisted.

So they stayed. They got trading permits on the Hudson and Delaware rivers. Separate and exotic in early Christian America, the Jews gradually melted into the national scene.

An intriguing show, "Jewish Life in America: Fulfilling the American Dream," has just opened for two months at Meridian House International to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

Spread through four lavishly appointed rooms at the nonprofit institution at 1630 Crescent Place NW, with tapes playing relevant music from Al Jolson to the Kaddish, it is a quiet show. It doesn't hit you over the head. But it reminds you that Ellis Island doesn't tell the whole story, that some Jewish Americans were around early enough to have their portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully.

There is an ad from the Pennsylvania Packet of Sept. 4, 1784, announcing Haym Salomon, "factor, auctioneer and broker," in French and English, and a long list of imports offered by Kuhn and Rifberg, including "cassimers, rattinets and fhalloons, tammies and durants."

A blow-up of the Maryland Jew Bill, for equal rights, published in 1819 and passed finally in 1826, appears among ads for stores and merchandise. And old photos: the Lower East Side, Maxwell Street, Orchard Street, a sweat shop, faces, faces.

Gradually, we break away from scenes of immigrant poverty. There is the family portrait of the Samuel Kuhns of Cincinnati, intelligent, aware, dark eyes staring out at us as though they knew we were there. A turreted house in Oakland. A Warburg wedding. A fur merchant in Edmonton, Alberta.

Sign, 1870s: "Levi Strauss & Co., sole proprietors and manufacturers of the Celebrated Patent Riveted Clothing."

There are strong portraits of wonderful Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy's, who gave up their places in the lifeboats and went down with the Titanic in 1912. ("Please," he said, "get into a lifeboat and be saved." "No, let me stay with you," she said. They had been married 40 years.) And a Schiff and a Guggenheim and Lillian Wald, who launched the first visiting nurse service, and a youthful Louis Brandeis.

Next to these faces, a flier for a Cape Cod hotel, with a line at the bottom: "We have no HEBREW patronage."

A roomful of sculptures by Lipchitz, Baskin and Epstein, among others, sets the stage for the story of the modern American Jew, and more faces--Edward G. Robinson, Heifetz, Horowitz, Einstein, Stern, Singer, Salk, Rothko, Nevelson, Woody Allen--and more events--the German-American Bund rally, Selma, Skokie, demonstrations for Israel.

This fall and next year the exhibit will tour the country. David Lloyd Kreeger, a Meridian House trustee, headed the project, which is cosponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society. An inspiring show.