Forty-three years ago, during a particularly flourishing period for
modern medallic art, a commemorative medal program was born that still
endures. The continuing series offers collectors both challenge and
familiarity, with a variety of subjects by well-known designers, some
of whom designed United States coins.
The Jewish-American Hall of Fame medal project
is the longest running series of nongovernment art medals produced in
America, according to Mel Wacks, the originator of the program and
still its torch-bearer today. More than 25,000 medals have been sold
through the program since its inception in 1969, an outgrowth of the
then Judah Magnes Museum.
New inductees are honored with a plaque, as
well as placement on a medal highlighting their history and unique
accomplishments. Part of the American Jewish Historical Society after
2001, the plaques that honor new inductees have been on permanent loan
at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond since 2010.
Inductees are from all corners of society:
sports, military, medicine, business and entertainment, among others,
and the medals often highlight lesser-known facets of their fame.
While many names (like Barbra Streisand and
George Gershwin) would be instantly recognizable to almost everyone,
mixed in are names that are most certainly unknown or overlooked by
many people, like the 18th century’s Haym Solomon or the 20th
century’s Dr. Bela Schick.
“Jews have made important contributions to the
history and culture of America from the time of [Christopher]
Columbus,” writes Wacks at the JAHF website, www.amuseum.org. “Learn
that it was Spanish Jewry, not Spanish jewelry, that paid for
Columbus’ voyage of discovery.”
In a recent interview, Wacks added, “There are
many individuals who have made substantial contributions to America
(and the world) in one way or another but whose names are not known to
the public, and we have honored some of them.”
Alan Stahl, currently the curator of
numismatics at Princeton University, writing in the 1990 catalog of
the Federation Internationale de la Medaille, listed the
Jewish-American Hall of Fame series among the most “important series
of medals in recent years,” placing it in the company of the Society
of Medalists and the Brookgreen Gardens medal programs, both famous in
art circles. But the JAHF program stands alone as the longest survivor
of the medallic art heyday.
In general, each inductee (and medal subject)
is a single individual, but some exceptions have been made.
The medals have always been made in bronze
versions, with additional versions produced in precious metal.
In the 1970s, about 25 gold-plated bronze sets
of the first six medals (issued from 1969 to 1974) were made and sold
by Medallic Art Co.
From 1969 through 2010, .999 fine silver
medals were issued, but the rising cost of silver forced the JAHF to
begin issuing silver-plated bronze medals in place of a pure silver version.
Gold medals have been a mainstay of the
program since 1978, though the overall gold content of the medals has
undergone change. The gold medals of 1978 and 1979 are made of .583
fine gold. The fineness was decreased to .4167 fine with the 1980
issue, which was employed through 2002 (and all of the gold medals of
both finenesses were plated with .999 fine gold).
The rising prices of gold have forced greater
changes since the release of the 2002 medal.
The 2003/2004 medal by Karen Worth honoring
labor leaders Samuel Gompers and Sidney Hillman was not offered in
gold. “Gold” medals were offered again starting in 2005, but from 2005
through 2010, the “gold” medals are composed of silver plated with
gold. Beginning in 2011 the “gold” medals are gold-plated bronze pieces.
Shaping the medals
One distinguishing characteristic of the JAHF
medal series is the shape of the medals.
With a few exceptions, the JAHF medals are
struck in the rounded trapezoidal shape created by Victor Ries in 1969
as he designed the first medal in the program, honoring Judah L.
Magnes. The trapezoidal medals measure 48 millimeters wide, 46
millimeters tall and 5 millimeters thick (the width at the top is
slightly narrower than the bottom width).
Wacks credits a good portion of the success of
the program to that unusual shape, along with the several “very
talented medalists” who have created designs for the program, the
“high quality minting” and the “very small mintages” for the medals.
But, in three instances the program could not
maintain that uniformity of shape; the 1986 Christopher Columbus
medal, another Columbus medal in 1992 and the 1973 medal honoring Haym
Solomon (who helped finance the American Revolution) are the only
round medals thus far in the series, because the artist who designed
all three, “the great medalist, Paul Vincze, would not work in our
usual rounded-trapezoidal shape,” Wacks said.
The JAHF medal series has received widespread
acclaim, he said.
“While we have a strong nucleus of Jewish
supporters, we also have many non-Jewish buyers throughout the United
States and as far away as mainland China. Some are attracted by the
subject matter that has wide appeal ... [and] others appreciate the
magnificent high relief portraits and designs,” Wacks said.
Jews have left an indelible impression on all
facets of American history, and perhaps no area is more American than sports.
Though sometimes stereotyped as unathletic —
the Famous Jewish Sports Legends pamphlet in Airplane! comes to mind —
many Jewish athletes have risen to success in the highest sports
leagues in America.
Baseball is the sport where Jews have achieved
possibly the most success; more than 150 players of Jewish descent
have played at the major league level, several of them enjoying Hall
of Fame careers. One of those Jewish stars of the baseball diamond is
Henry Benjamin “Hank” Greenberg, who arrived in Major League Baseball
15 years before Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier.
In 1956 Greenberg became the first Jewish
athlete inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1935,
Greenberg was named Most Valuable Player, the first Jewish award
winner, for leading the Detroit Tigers to a World Series Championship,
but it is a game he didn’t play that might best encapsulate the
balancing act between career and faith.
In 1934, with the Tigers in a pennant race,
Greenberg decided to play on Rosh Hashanah (hitting two home runs,
including the game winner) but sit out Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish
holiday. The Tigers lost that day, but had already secured a position
in the playoffs. Edgar Guest wrote a poem about the dilemma faced by
Greenberg, the final lines of which are inscribed on the reverse of
the medal, reading WE SHALL MISS HIM IN THE INFIELD AND SHALL MISS HIM
AT THE BAT BUT HE’S TRUE TO HIS RELIGION — AND HONOR HIM FOR THAT.
The medal, designed by Hal Reed, features a
portrait of Greenberg along with his signature on the obverse. In
addition to the quote from the poem, the reverse depicts Greenberg
hitting his 1945 pennant-winning grand slam home run in the ninth
inning of the season’s final game.
The Greenberg medal was originally released in
1991 in bronze, silver and .4167 fine gold versions; the JAHF issued
an additional quantity of silver-plated bronze medals in 2011 to mark
the centennial of Greenberg’s birth. These are medals marked HANK
GREENBERG CENTENNIAL on the edge.
Catcher Moe Berg is another baseball player
honored in the series of medals, but it was his military service to
America during World War II that secured his enshrinement into the JAHF.
The Berg medal, designed by Eugene Daub, was
issued in 2006.
The Berg medal highlighted both Berg’s
military action in World War II and his baseball career with four
major league teams before the war. An athlete who filmed Tokyo
military installations during a 1934 baseball tour of Japan, Berg
joined the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, engaging
in espionage critical to the war effort.
Berg is the only baseball player to be
enshrined in the CIA’s Hall of Fame and the International Spy Museum.
Another World War II hero, boxer Barney Ross,
was honored with the 2009 medal, also designed by Daub.
Ross was a three-time world boxing champion
who maintained later that the toughest round he ever faced “was the
night I spent in that shell hole with my wounded brother.”
His service as an infantry soldier earned him
a Silver Star for gallantry, which features prominently on the reverse
of the medal.
The medal shows the finely detailed
musculature of a boxer in his prime, and something more, a bashed-in
facial feature. “This is a nose that’s taken a lot of hits,” Daub said
in 2009 in an interview with Coin World (Sept. 21, 2009).
Jewish actors, comedians, performers,
directors and producers have left an imprint in Hollywood and the
One of the biggest stars of the early
television era is Milton Berle, who became known as “Mr. Television.”
Berle was inducted into the JAHF in 2008.
Daub created the medal, which shows a portrait
of Berle wearing a bow-tie. The legend THERE’S ONLY ONE PLACE FOR ME —
NEAR YOU, comes from Berle’s theme song.
A nostalgic scene of a 1950s family watching
Berle’s hugely popular Texaco Star Theater on an early television
appears on the reverse.
Berle received one of the first Emmy Awards
ever given for starring in NBC’s Texaco Star Theater (1948) and was
the first person to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame
(1984), among other distinctions.
Fans of classic and Broadway music surely will
recognize the work of Leonard Bernstein, who was honored on a 1993
medal from the series.
The Bernstein medal, designed by Marika
Somogyi, marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of the late musician.
The obverse depicts his profile bust facing left with facsimile
signature across the neck and dates 1918-1990 below. The reverse
depicts a scene of Bernstein at a piano on stage during one of his
Young People’s Concerts.
Bernstein was a composer of Broadway musicals,
classical music, operas and ballet scores in addition to being a
conductor. He became the first American-born person to head a major
symphony orchestra when he was appointed music director of the New
York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958.
The star of an earlier and much different
medium, Harry Houdini, was inducted into the hall and honored with a
medal in 1996, designed by Reed and Wacks.
The medal was a first for the series, offering
collectors two medals in one, Wacks said.
“The Houdini medal is like an Oreo cookie —
there are actually two medals. Halloween scenes [on the insides] are
the negative of each other and fit together perfectly to make an
‘Oreo’ double medal,” he said.
Houdini was born Erich Weiss in Hungary. He
immigrated to the United States with his family and rose to fame as an
illusionist and magician, his death-defying feats earning him fame
worldwide long after his curious death in 1926.
The Houdini medal and one for Asser Levy are
the only “double medal” issues in the series.
Science, medical field
One of the intriguing aspects of the series is
the diversity of subjects honored.
Physicist Albert Einstein (the subject of the
second medal, issued in 1970) is a name almost universally familiar,
but other honorees, like Dr. Bela Schick (who developed a test for
diphtheria, and is honored on a 1990 JAHF medal), is probably
unfamiliar to most peoples.
Einstein and Schick are just two of the
handful of luminaries from the world of science and medicine honored
in the series.
Another medal (1980) honors Jonas Salk, who
created the polio vaccine, while yet another medal (released in 2011)
highlights Gertrude Ross, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
What did these honorees do? Einstein’s work on
theoretical physics was ground shaking for the time and still
reverberates more than 100 years after theories published during his
“annus mirabilis” or “miracle year” have since been proven, leading to
numerous technologies enjoyed by billions daily.
Schick, seen at his microscope on the medal
commemorating his accomplishments, developed the eponymous Schick test
for diphtheria susceptibility. Dr. Schick coordinated a successful,
five-year campaign to eradicate the disease that killed thousands
annually in the U.S. The campaign included a pamphlet created by a
young artist Gerta Ries (Wiener), who 75 years later would design the
medal in the JAHF series honoring the man.
Salk’s discovery was the linchpin in fighting
a disease that affected tens of thousands annually. The reverse design
is a testament to the effects of the life-changing disease; two boys
play basketball while another, stricken with polio, stands with
crutches and watches.
Elion, the latest honoree, is the 10th female
inducted into the Hall. A chemist, she is credited with the
development of the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, work
that later led to improving organ transplants.
The Jewish diaspora in America has included
inventors, explorers, poets, artists and more, touching many segments
of American life.
In 1992, coinciding with the 400th anniversary
of his “discovery” of America, the JAHF medal honored Columbus, who
might have had Jewish ancestry, while the medal also referred to the
expulsion of Jews from Spain. An earlier medal (1986) honored three
individuals — Don Isaac Abravanel, Luis de Santangel and Abraham
Zacuto — who helped Columbus obtain the financial assistance critical
to his journey.
Columbus’ exploration cleared the way for
later waves of explorers and, later still, immigrants to brave the
passage across a mighty ocean to come to the shores of a new land.
The spirit that welcomed so many immigrants to
a growing power is honored with the 1983 medal for Emma Lazarus, well
known today for her sonnet about the Statue of Liberty.
A shortened form of the familiar legend, GIVE
ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR ... YEARNING TO BREATH FREE, appears on the
obverse of Gerta Ries Wiener’s 1983 medal.
Wiener’s medal features a young portrait of
Lazarus on the obverse. A crowd of immigrants on board a ship sailing
toward Ellis Island graces the reverse. Ten figures appear, including
six children. The immigrants stand near the ship’s railing, staring
wistfully at the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
Some 12 million immigrants came through nearby
Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954, just one of the many points of entry
for millions of immigrants, some of whom were Jewish, during the 19th
and 20th century.
One of those immigrants who came to the
country in the 19th century hailed from Bavaria in Germany: Levi
Strauss, who is credited with co-creating one of the most defining
items of American fashion history, blue jeans.
Levis jeans are still being made nearly 140
years after Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis patented the process to add
copper rivets to strengthen jeans.
Strauss and the patented jeans are honored
with a 1979 medal.
Medals by coin designers
A notable achievement of the series of medals
is the sheer number of respected and famous artists who have been commissioned.
Collectors of U.S. coins desiring to piggyback
on their U.S. coin interests might consider the medal series, as
several of the artists also created coinage designs.
The only other numismatic work of Jacques
Schnier, the artist behind the 1974 Herbert H. Lehman medal, is the
1936 Bay Bridge commemorative half dollar.
Alex Shagin is a well-known artist who created
the reverse for the 2001 Capitol Visitor Center commemorative half
dollar reverse. He also created JAHF medals for humanitarian Elie
Wiesel (1995), singer/actress Barbra Streisand (1997), Titanic victims
Ida and Isadore Strauss (1998), Asser Levy (1999), Bess Myerson (2001)
and Leopold Karpeles (2002).
Somogyi, the designer of the Bernstein medal,
also created the 1989 Benny Goodman medal and the 2000 medal for
Arthur Miller, as well as the 2001 Capitol Visitor Center
commemorative silver dollar obverse and the 1991 Mount Rushmore
commemorative silver dollar obverse for the U.S. Mint.
Jim Licaretz, designer for the 2005 Robert
“Rosie” Rosenthal medal, has multiple U.S. coin designs to his name,
including the 2009 Guam quarter dollar reverse and 2010 Boy Scouts of
America Centennial commemorative silver dollar reverse.
Work from one of the artists behind three
medals in the JAHF series can be found around the world. Vincze,
creator of the only round JAHF medals, also created coins for many
countries, including Guatemala, Guernsey, Guinea, Jamaica, Libya,
Malawi and Nigeria, among others.
Collecting the medals
Collectors interested in pursuing the medallic
series can limit their chase to a set of one metal version, or
pick-and-choose honorees in building a thematic collection. A
collection of all three versions for every year, while not impossible,
would likely take years of effort and a large bankroll.
The JAHF still offers some of the past issues
through its shop; as of press time July 11, one or more of the
versions are still available for 32 of the approximately 40 recipients.
The complete list of medals issued, as well as
which ones remain available, can be found at www.amuseum.org/jahf/shop/shop.php.
The site also lists a few ancillary items,
including a few medallic issues that are not part of the JAHF series.
A 1993 medal honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not
part of the series (and she is not an inductee), though it was issued
as part of a separate JAHF initiative. Nor is the 350 Years of Jewish
Life in America medal released in 2004; it was issued for a larger
project for the Celebrate 350 commission, a national commemoration of
Jewish history in the United States.
Buying the newest releases as they become
available (which is annually, with rare exception) is one way to
kick-start a collection.
The 2012 medal will celebrate Mordecai Manuel
Noah (1785 to 1851), who was probably the most famous American Jew in
the early 19th century, but is relatively unknown today, according to
Wacks. The medal will become available in the fall.
Wacks invites those with interest in this or
any of the medals to telephone him at 818-225-1348 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition JAHF medals often appear in
mail-bid sales conducted by William Rosenblum, a specialist in
Judaica, and a few are usually offered on eBay at any given time.
Other dealers might carry the medals with less
frequency, but “it is extremely rare that complete or nearly complete
collections are available, so it is a challenge putting together a
complete set of Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals — but isn’t that
what makes collecting fun?” Wacks said.
The medals provide a lesson in history, even
“I’ve learned a lot. The [series] has given me
an education,” he said.
Decades after its birth, the Jewish-American
Hall of Fame medal program continues to attract an audience of
interested collectors, which extends far beyond the Jewish community.
“If these medals had only appealed to a small
ethnic group they probably would not have survived,” Wacks writes.