THE YEAR 1654 marks the beginning of Jewish communal life in the United States, when 23 Jews, fleeing religious persecution in Brazil, settled in what would become New York City. Over time, the country celebrated by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus for sheltering the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" became a place where Jews could worship openly, participate in the larger society and flourish.
At the Library of Congress, that development is traced in "From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America," an exhibit through Dec. 18 at the Jefferson Building in Southeast Washington. For kids, the sheer range of the exhibit's 150 artifacts may prove especially intriguing. They include a 17th-century Torah scroll and a Yiddish "The Cat in the Hat," an 1812 pencil drawing of Beth Elohim Synagogue in Charleston, S.C., and baseball cards of Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg.
At the entrance, visitors can travel back in time by following a 76-foot-long timeline from the present to the Colonial era. Kids pass displays about important people and events: the first Jewish vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) (2000); the dynamiting of Atlanta's Reform Jewish Temple by unknown extremists (1958); the first Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson (1945); the building of the first synagogue in the United States, located in Lower Manhattan (1730).
From the timeline, visitors move into small galleries devoted to aspects -- profound, poignant, even humorous -- of the Jewish experience. In one display case, a 1790 letter from George Washington to the Newport Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island powerfully asserts that the United States "to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance." The father of our country appears again in a display on popular culture -- gracing an advertisement, from the 1970s, for Mogen David cherry wine.
On the Tuesday afternoon I visited, I noticed most youngsters were drawn to the images flickering across several small screens. Excerpts from vintage newsreels, documentaries, films and TV programs show European immigrants arriving on Ellis Island in 1903, a survivor of the 1911 Triangle Waist Co. fire decrying the death of 146 fellow garment workers, and "Seinfeld" characters preparing for Jewish singles night in a 1996 episode.
The exhibit also explores the anti-Semitism that forced many Jews to relocate to this country -- and occasionally greeted them on its shores. At times, Jews in America have suffered taunts, voting restrictions and social discrimination. A chilling question captions a large photo of youngsters waving from a ship deck at the Statue of Liberty: "Why were these Jewish children coming to America in 1939?" The answer, of course, is that they were escaping Nazi persecution in their homeland. Another arresting photo shows the residents of Billings, Mont., protesting an anti-Semitic act (lobbing a brick into a Jewish home) in 1993. People of all faiths, ethnicities and walks of life -- Native Americans, Catholic priests, aproned homemakers, cheerleaders, construction workers -- stand holding menorahs.
Composer Irving Berlin ends the exhibit, quite literally, on a high note. The Russian emigre belts out his signature "God Bless America" surrounded by warbling Boy and Girl Scouts on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1968. Berlin maintained that he wrote the song in thanks to his adopted country for its help and opportunities.
FROM HAVEN TO HOME: 350 YEARS OF JEWISH LIFE IN AMERICA -- Through Dec. 18 at the Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, 10 First St. SE (Metro: Capitol South or Union Station). 202-707-8000 (general information), 202-707-4604 (exhibits). www.loc.gov. Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5. Free. Live performances of "Haven to Home: An American Journey," a multimedia theatrical presentation, in Coolidge Auditorium, Jefferson Building, at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18 and Dec. 6. Performances are suitable for ages 10 and up. Tickets are free, but reservations required; call 202-707-1071.