A hundred years and a few miles from an often-overlooked point in American Jewish history, some visitors from Houston stood in front of a Hebrew-language eye chart in Galveston, Texas earlier this month.
The chart, a facsimile of one that tested the reading abilities of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, is among hundreds of artifacts in “Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Island,” an exhibition that opened last month at Moody Gardens, a tourist park on Offatts Bayou.
Near the Galveston port on the Gulf of Mexico that served as a major entry point for three-quarters of a century, the Moody Park (moodygardens.org) display tells the story of the estimated 200,000 assorted Europeans who first touched U.S. soil here, but devotes a disproportionate part to the Galveston Plan that brought some 10,000 Jews to this country between 1907 and 1914.
The Galveston Plan, financed by New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff and guided by Rabbi Henry Cohen, a British-born activist who was one of the most prominent rabbis in the U.S. a century ago, was designed to settle Jews away from the poverty and anti-Semitism of East Coast ghettos. Two-thirds of the country’s million Jews lived then in New York’s Lower East Side.
A 1983 book, “Galveston: Ellis Island of the West” (Bernard Marinbach, SUNY Press), and a documentary that year, “West of Hester Street,” by Dallas filmmakers Allan Mondell and Cynthia Salzman Mondell (mediaprojects.org), narrated by the late actor Sam Jaffe, were devoted to the Galveston Plan, and the arc of shtetl residents-turned-cowboys is a popular part of local lore.
But the Galveston port — and the Jewish newcomers who fanned out by rail throughout the Midwest and Plains states — has remained in the shadow of Ellis Island, whose immigration station processed 12 million people between 1892 and 1954.
“Very few people have heard of it in the Northeast,” says Robert Abzug, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies and the University of Texas.
Increasing attention is focusing on Galveston during the Galveston Plan’s centennial. Suzanne Seriff, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas and curator of the exhibition, took part in its recent opening; the Texas State History Museum sponsored a symposium on the movement this fall; Houston’s PBS stationed aired a documentary last month on Galveston’s immigration, featuring the Galveston Plan.
“The exhibit has worked hard to use the Galveston story as a historic lens through which to engage visitors in enduring questions facing the U.S. as a ‘nation of immigrants’: Who should be allowed to be an American? and Who gets to decide?,” Seriff says.
Galveston, 45 minutes from Houston, was one of the state’s largest cities until a 1900 hurricane killed 6,000 people and damaged most of its buildings.
The exhibit closes next September, and is scheduled to be shown at Ellis Island some time in 2010 or 2011, says Kuriko Hasegawa, Moody Gardens public relations coordinator.