Abstract – Art is described as abstract when it exaggerates, distorts, or simplifies recognizable forms. Abstraction may also be completely non-representational.
Acculturation – The process by which the characteristics and behavior of a group of people are modified as a result of contact with the dominant group or culture.
Antisemitism – Hatred, hostility, or discrimination directed at people because they are Jewish.
Ark – A protective box or chest. The term is used to refer to the cabinet in the synagogue in which the Torah scrolls are kept.
Ashkenazi – Term used to designate Jews of Western or Eastern European origin.
Assemblage – A three-dimensional work made by combining an assortment of found materials or the process by which such works are created. The practice goes back to Pablo Picasso’s cubist constructions and the "readymades" of the Dadaists, but the term is most often applied to a group of artists—among them, Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell—who produced a variety of assemblage works in the 1950s and ’60s.
Assimilation – The process of adapting one’s behavior and attitude to those of the surrounding dominant culture.
Colonial Period – The period in American history beginning with the establishment of the British colonies and ending with the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Composition – The arrangement of line, shape, color, and form in a work of art.
Crazy quilt – A patchwork textile made from irregular pieces of fabric without any discernable design. Crazy quilting was popular in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cubism – Started in 1907 by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, an art movement that sought to break down and analyze the two-dimensional, pictorial representation of form and space. In cubism, objects and pictorial space are broken down into faceted planes and reassembled in ways that often suggest spatial shifts and different perspectives within the painting.
Czarist (or tsarist) – Relating to the period preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917, during which time Russia was ruled by a series of czars (or tsars). The term czar derives from caesar, the Latin word for emperor. The first czar of Russia was Ivan IV, who ruled from 1533 to 1584.
Emigrant – One who leaves his or her country of origin to live elsewhere.
Federal Period – The period in American history beginning with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and continuing until approximately 1830.
Frieze – A decorated horizontal band. In classical architecture, a frieze is a long horizontal strip above a colonnade or doorway, or on the upper part of a wall, often decorated with painting or relief.
Futurism – Begun in Italy in 1909, an art movement that glorified the energy and dynamism of modern life and technology. Futurists used interpenetrating planes and shifting forms to represent objects in motion. Futurism’s leading practitioners include Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, and Tommaso Marinetti, the movement’s founder.
Ghetto – The word ghetto originated in Venice, Italy. In 1516, Venetian Jews were forced to live in an area called the Ghetto Nuovo (New Foundry). Eventually, the word came to be used for any area in which Jews were forced to live. During World War II, the Nazis created ghettos in cities and towns throughout Eastern Europe. They were usually enclosed within walls or barbed wire, and the residents were not free to enter and leave as they wished. Starvation, disease, and overcrowding were common.
Great Depression – A worldwide economic crisis that began with the stock market crash of 1929 in the United States and continued through the 1930s.
Hasidic – Relating to Hasidism, a Jewish religious movement founded in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. The movement’s founder, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov or the Master of the Good Name), emphasized spirituality and joyful observance of commandments in contrast to the more academically based mode of mainstream Judaism of the time. Hasidism (related to the Hebrew word for “pious”) spread quickly throughout Eastern Europe. Today, there are about a dozen Hasidic sects, the largest of which is the Lubavitch Hasidim, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.
Immigrant – One who comes to live permanently in a country that is not his or her native country.
Isolationism – A focus of American foreign policy in the period following World War I, isolationism is characterized by efforts to become less involved in world affairs. The high costs of the war (financial and human) had left many Americans wary of future European entanglements. In addition to political and economic isolation, American isolationist policy also led in part to stricter limits on immigration during the 1920s and ’30s.
Landsmannschaften – A German term referring to the “hometown societies” that were established by and for immigrants who came from the same towns in Europe, in order to help new arrivals adjust to life in America. These were common in Jewish immigrant neighborhoods around the turn of the 20th century.
Mizrah – A plaque with the word east in Hebrew that is placed on the eastern wall in a home or synagogue to indicate the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem.
Monochromatic – Consisting of just one color.
Nativism – The policy of favoring the interests of native inhabitants of a country over those of newcomers. The United States saw a rise in nativist sentiment after World War I, as many Americans feared new immigrants would bring radical ideas and take American jobs.
Negative space – Empty space or the areas in a work of art that surround the forms and images.
Neoclassical – An art movement that began in France in the middle of the 18th century. Neoclassicism sought to revive the ideals of ancient Greek and Roman art.
Orthodox – Conforming to established doctrine or traditional practice, especially in religion.
Portrait – A work of art that represents a specific person or group of people.
Pogrom – From the Russian word meaning "havoc." A mob attack in which Jewish men, women, and children were brutalized and killed and their homes sacked and looted. Pogroms in Eastern Europe were often carried out with the support of local authorities.
Positive space – The areas of a work of art that are filled with forms or images.
Push factors – Adverse conditions that motivate people to leave their places of residence, such as famine, poverty, or political and religious persecution.
Rosh Hashanah – Hebrew for “Head of the Year,” Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It usually falls in September or October.
Sephardi – Jews or Jewish communities that trace their origins to Spain and Portugal before the expulsions of 1492 and 1497.
Shamash – The servitor or "helper" candle used to light the other flames on a Hanukkah lamp.
Shohet – One who is trained to slaughter animals according to the Jewish dietary laws.
Social realism – Art that realistically depicts the everyday life of the working classes and the poor and is critical of the social environments that caused their condition. Practiced by such artists as Ben Shahn and Diego Rivera, social realism was an influential movement during the first half of the 20th century.
Steerage – The lowest decks of a ship, named for their proximity to the ship’s steering mechanism. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, passengers who booked the cheapest tickets on transatlantic trips (including the majority of immigrants) were usually housed on the steerage decks. Conditions in steerage were often unpleasant because of overcrowding, lack of light and fresh air, and poor sanitation.
Sweatshop – A shop or factory in which employees work long hours for low pay under poor conditions. Sweatshops were especially common in the garment industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before stricter labor laws improved conditions for workers.
Tenement – The word tenement originally referred to any rented dwelling that housed three or more separate families. Today, the term is generally used to describe the kind of overcrowded urban apartment buildings that many immigrants lived in during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tenement conditions were often harsh, with poor ventilation and sanitation. A series of housing reform laws, however, gradually improved conditions somewhat by the 1930s.
Texture – The feel of a surface—its smoothness, roughness, softness, etc. Textures may be actual or simulated.
Torah – Hebrew for “teaching.” This word usually refers to the first five books of the Bible or to a handwritten scroll containing the Hebrew text of those books. All aspects of traditional Jewish life are based on the Torah and ongoing rabbinic interpretations.
WPA – The Works Progress Administration (renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939). Introduced in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide economic relief during the Great Depression, the WPA created jobs in construction and skilled labor and included programs to support the visual and performing arts.
Yiddish – A language historically spoken by Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, based in German with Hebrew and Slavic influences.