By LINDA KRESTANOVA
The national debate over immigration was inescapable at the closing ceremony of New-York Historical Society’s exhibit commemorating the first Jewish Americans as a 16th-century manuscript written by a persecuted Jew became a symbol of solidarity between the United States and Mexico.
The manuscript, written in colonial Mexico, had been lost for over eight decades and was found earlier this year in Manhattan. After being a part of the exhibit titled “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World,” it will now be returning to Mexico, “where it belongs,” said Ambassador Diego Gómez Pickering, Mexico’s consul general in New York.
“It’s coming back to the Mexican Jewish community,” Pickering said at Tuesday’s ceremony, “and it’s going across the border, a border that, in culture and understanding, will never be closed.”
Pickering was met with enthusiastic applause from everyone there to celebrate the early immigrants, who had fled from Europe and established communities in both North and South America.
The artifact, considered the earliest surviving worship account of coming to the New World, is the diary of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, a Jewish man who lived in New Spain (now Mexico). To avoid punishment imposed by the Inquisition, which followed believers to the New World, De Carvajal claimed to be Catholic. In 1590, his true faith was discovered and he was captured. During his imprisonment, he began writing his memoir, which largely focused on his faith.
De Carvajal was ultimately burned at the stake, along with other members of his family. His manuscript was saved and found its way to Mexico’s National Archives, only to mysteriously disappear in the 1930s.
New York City became a part of the narrative when Leonard Milberg, a New Yorker and collector of Judaica, came across the manuscript in a catalog at Swann Galleries in Manhattan. Thanks to Milberg, experts studied the artifact and confirmed its authenticity. After financing the purchase, Milberg made a deal with Pickering: the manuscript would return to Mexico after a being a part of the exhibit in New York.
“We value the effort and dedication to build bridges between the Mexican and the Latino communities and the Jewish community here in New York City,” Pickering said of Milberg and the groups that collaborated with the museum, including AJC NY, part of a global Jewish advocacy group.
The exhibit was a celebration of the men and women who sought freedom in the New World. As a result, there were many allusions to current anti-immigration sentiment in a room filled with rare paintings, portraits, maps, books and artifacts that showed a world of different cultures and traditions coming together in a new land.
“America, as is often said, is a nation of immigrants,” Louise Mirrer, president and chief executive officer of the New-York Historical Society, said during the ceremony. “And these days, we cannot say that enough.”
The exhibit runs through March 12.
Photo: Diego Gómez Pickering, Mexico’s consul general in New York, hails the return of an important historical manuscript to Mexico. (Linda Krestanova)