Sara Lee Saperstein recalls only a single sentence about Jews in her eighth-grade state history book.
Many years later, as an adult, she learned of Joachim Gans, a Jew from Prague, now part of the Czech Republic, who came to North Carolina in 1585 with Sir Walter Raleigh.
“I don’t think I realized until then that our history here goes back that far,” said Saperstein of Greensboro, a board member of the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, which is dedicated to preserving, sharing and celebrating Jewish culture and artistry.
This weekend, the nonprofit premieres “Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina,” which documents the settlement of Jews in the state and includes the stories of local people, such as Head Start pioneer Leah Tannenbaum, builder Norman Samet and community matriarch Lena Goldman, who turned 102 this year.
“She (Goldman) thanked us, and she said, ‘I thought my stories were going to die with me,’ ” said author Leonard Rogoff, the Heritage Foundation research historian who sought support for the project over the last decade. “We heard, ‘I thought we were going to be forgotten,’ a lot.”
The film is a major part of a million-dollar multimedia project, with former Gov. Jim Hunt as its honorary chairman. It debuts with a gala at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh on Sunday, at Greensboro’s Carolina Theater on Oct. 19, and across the state in the months following.
Although another $200,000 is needed to finish the project, it is to include a traveling museum exhibit that will tour the state before finding a permanent home, a book with color illustrations, and an educational video and teaching guide to complement the state’s existing multicultural curriculum.
The project was produced by Video Dialog, the same filmmaking crew for “February One,” the documentary about the Greensboro sit-ins that was broadcast nationally on PBS and nominated for an Emmy.
The project’s targeted audience, however, is not only Jews who want to learn more about their history.
“It’s such a wonderful story, but it’s North Carolina’s story, too,” said line producer Lue Simopoulos.
Before Ellis Island, Jews and many other immigrants entered the country through shipping ports along the coast, such as Wilmington and Charleston.
“The interesting thing about North Carolina is not only that the story has never been told or presented, but it’s never really been researched,” Rogoff said.
That includes the story of Gans, a mineralogist who came here seeking opportunity and freedom.
Many of those early Jews were peddlers who settled where they ran out of money. “We see these people who became very successful like the Blumenthals in Charlotte and the Cone family in Greensboro, and you say they just have lots of money,” said Dr. Henry Greene, president of the heritage foundation’s board.
“But here you learn the remarkable stories of how they came from not much at all to create these successful organizations that employed thousands of people, and how they became philanthropic and part of the fabric of their communities.”
Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, the Levine’s Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro and the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University were among those endowed by Jews.
“You learn stories like in some communities, there were two Jewish families and it turned out both men in the families became mayors — clearly it wasn’t the Jews who voted them into office,” Greene said.
In 1949, Benjamin Cone became the first Jewish mayor of Greensboro, when Jews numbered about 500 in the city of 70,000. Part of that acceptance hinged on faith.
In the 19th century, according to Southern historians, many of the Christians who lived in North Carolina had a strong affiliation with the Old Testament.
“These people coming in were viewed as the ‘people of the book’ and they were viewed with fascination,” said Simopoulos, the line producer. “People would come to them and have their babies blessed.”
There were dark moments, too.
“One of the things you try to caution yourself about is that you don’t want to write a celebratory history,” said Rogoff, the historian. Jewish peddlers were murdered. There were mob attacks and mutilations. Social discrimination kept them out of clubs and off some golf courses.
The group hopes the documentary eventually will be broadcast on PBS — but earlier this week, it was still being pared down.
“If we have any heartache doing this film,” Rogoff said, “it is that we are confined to an hour.”
Contact Nancy H. McLaughlin at 373-7049 or nancy.mclaughlin