Henry Ford and the Jews
The Henry Ford hosts a first-ever Jewish-themed curator’s tour of its collection.
Henry Ford’s public life of luminous invention and innovation was darkened by issues of anti-Semitism, but the museum that carries his name holds and showcases objects demonstrating momentous accomplishments of the Jewish community.
Both the anti-Semitism and the accomplishments will be explored in an afternoon program at the Henry Ford in Dearborn. The event, “The Henry Ford: Through a Jewish Lens,” was planned by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (JHSM), working with the museum over two years.
The program starts with a talk by Steven Watts, author of The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, moves into a tour pointing out continuing and pop-up displays of Jewish-linked holdings, and concludes with a reception featuring a Detroit Symphony Orchestra violinist performing music tied to Jewish heritage.
“I am hoping our guests leave with two takeaways: a better understanding of Henry Ford, the man, and a greater appreciation of Jews as Americans, innovators, designers and entrepreneurs, based on the displays and the stories that the Henry Ford curators will share at each of the exhibits,” says Anne Weiner, who co-chairs the event with Jacqui Elkus and Barbara Cohn.
Marc Greuther, the Henry Ford vice president and chief curator, will join Steven Watts for a question-and-answer session that will include questions submitted by attendees. The tour portion will have maps designed specifically for the event. Tickets will include all-day access to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, Greenfield Village and “Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” an internationally touring exhibit.
Watts, a University of Missouri history professor who has written biographies of Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner among other newsmakers, regularly visited the Ford archives and complex in Dearborn to advance his book, a four-year project published in 2005 by Knopf and now available in paperback.
“I’ll be talking about Henry Ford and his controversial attitudes about and in relationship with the Jewish community in the United States,” Watts says. “I will be covering, in a general way, some of these problem aspects from his career, particularly in the 1920s.
“There have been lots of Ford biographies, but most of them concentrated on his role in American industry, particularly with the assembly line production of the Model T. I’m a cultural historian by trade, and the books I’ve done have always focused on cultural roles.”
While the Watts book reviews the Ford impact on the development of a consumer culture in the 20th century and how the Model T became the leading consumer item in the evolution of American values, he also delved into the origins, significance and implications of the anti-Semitism the tycoon demonstrated.
“What separates the men I’ve written about is their individual vision of things and willingness to gamble almost everything they had on making their visions come to life and succeed,” Watts says. “They believed 100 percent in the ideas they had, and that characteristic separates them from the normal run of people.
“Despite Ford’s role in changing American society, he was suspicious of a lot of things that happened to make the modern world [as he experienced it], and he was attached to an old-fashioned vision of America. He found a scapegoat for the things he didn’t like in the Jewish community in this country and internationally, and that’s sad to contemplate.”
Donna Braden, senior curator and curator of public life at the Henry Ford, has been working closely with the JHSM to develop the exhibits. She believes her background of growing up in the Cleveland Jewish community adds to her insights.
“We’re way more than a car museum,” Braden says. “We have holdings from designers, manufacturers and collectors. What’s particularly cool and exciting to me is bringing out items that rarely see the light of day.
“We’re going to show a collection of everyday items from the early 20th century related to Jewish holidays, bar mitzvahs and cookbooks in addition to items representing inventors and manufacturers.”
On display will be a tractor designed by Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), high-style silver tableware made by Myer Myers (1723-1795), early Mattel toys developed under the leadership of Ruth (1916-2002) and Elliot Handler (1916-2011) and studio glass formed by various Jewish artists over a number of years.
With Detroit talent in mind, there will be textiles fashioned by Ruth Adler Schnee, who has been invited to participate in the event; architectural materials by Albert Kahn (1869-1942) with some related to his work on the Ford Rotunda; and a sightseeing bus developed by Max and Morris Grabowsky, who were active in the early 1900s in establishing the Rapid Motor Vehicle Co. later bought by General Motors as the start of the truck division.
“We are showing a cross-section of all our collections involving Jewish people — known and unknown,” Braden explains. “We did research into our collections and history and went through the different curator areas. People we’ll be talking about were from all walks of life working in all areas. We’ve never done anything like this before.”
“The Henry Ford: Through a Jewish Lens” runs 3:30-7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Henry Ford in Dearborn. $18-$54. (248) 432-5517; michjewishhistory.org.