Pocketbook Patriotism for Playground Pishers
By KEN GORDON
By Susan Goldman Rubin
Illustrated by David Slonim
40 pages. Abrams Books for Young Readers. $16.95
Haym Salomon: American
Patriot. This sounds less like the title of the illustrated kids' book it
is than, well, a punch line. Something a mischievous web designer might brew up
with PhotoShop and a Sam Adams label. Tell me that Haym Salomon was
an obscure Israeli General, a guy with Ariel Sharon's bulk and a Moshe Dyan eye
patch, and I'll believe it. But if you introduce this Haym—author Susan Goldman
Rubin instructs readers that the name is pronounced "High-im"—as Revolutionary War hero… I'd have to pause and
think about it for a minute. Why? This data simply doesn't fall in line with
the all historical clichés we were taught in grammar school. Pick out, if you
will, the name that doesn't belong: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Haym Salomon.
Of course, it's always a mistake to make your final judgment on a first impression.
Why couldn't a man named Haym be as much a Revolutionary Warrior as any other
Founding Father? The first lesson of Haym
Salomon: we are all too often governed by cliché.
Haym Salomon was indeed a real but unconventional participant in the Revolutionary
War. Unconventional? Let's put it this way: the United States Postal Service
issued a 1975 stamp commemorating Salomon as a "Financial Hero," and
a 1911 book called Salomon, in its subtitle, The Financier of the
was a Polish immigrant and polyglot fancier who helped raise funds for
Revolution and gave interest-free personal loans to James Madison and other congressmen.
Intriguing stuff, no? It's not every day that one comes across tales of fiscal derring-do.
(Note: real risk was involved. Salomon was imprisoned twice for his Revolutionary
activities but managed to talk his way out of confinement.) But you have to
wonder what kind of kids will take to this book—apart from those fated to become
flag-waving investment bankers. I've tried to get my five-year-old daughter
interested; no dice. My two-and-a-half year old son, however, kept turning
pages because the illustrator, David Slonim, gave Salomon a cute little round-nosed
But forget about the kids. I was
intrigued by the idea of a Revolutionary Jew who used his Yiddishe kop to help Washington & Co. put British colonialism
out of business, and I wanted to know more. And who was this guy exactly? Susan
Goldman Rubin, in her author's note, admits that "little is known about
Hayim," and that "Myths and stories have gathered around Salomon, a
slender Jewish immigrant from Poland. The stories have help up because they are
good, if not entirely true." She goes onto add that while the book is
"based primarily" on authoritative historical sources, "Most of
my dialogue and dramatic scenes… are my contribution to engage young readers in
So where does the history begin and the dramatic reenactment end? Very hard to
tell. Check out the scene in which Rubin tells us about the relationship
between Robert Morris, a Philadelphia businessman whom George Washington
appointed the minister of finance during the War, and Salomon.
story goes that on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Haym was attending
services at [Temple] Mikveh Israel. A messenger came in and asked for him.
"Robert Morris sent me," the messenger said to Haym. "He needs
you to sell two bills of exchange for twenty thousand dollars."
Members of the congregation gasped. "For shame!" They were shocked to
hear talk about money on the holiest day of the year for Jews.
Haym, however, knew that at no other time would he have so many people gathered
at once. He asked the rabbi for permission to speak. "Let us all help
General Washington," he said. Within a few minutes, Haym raised all the
necessary money, including three thousand dollars of his own.
Don't know about you, but not knowing what is and isn't true (Rubin's inclusion
of the phrase "the story goes" doesn't help matters) gives me a mean
Oliver Stone flashback. Now, I don't think we need to fact-check every line
here—Rubin reports emailing with famed historian Jonathan Sarna about the facts
of Salomon's life—but it seems as though a book like this must be written with,
or at least labeled with, extreme care. If you're going to work with history
you either have to declare yourself on the side of fiction or nonfiction (and
if you're taking the later route, you can't deviate off the factual path). Haym Salomon raises a very tricky
question: how much factual fidelity must a children's author show when writing
a historically based volume? Surely no one would confuse this with a text book,
but it isn't exactly a historical novel for children, either.
This seems a book at odds with itself. It aims to inform kids about an unsung
historical character, to spur Jewish and American pride, and to make the past
palatable to toddlers. In short: It tries to accomplish too many things at once.
Frankly, Salomon's life was complicated, as were his fiscal dealings, and most
young kids won't get it.
But maybe there is a lesson here for der
kinder. Yes, Salomon isn't your typical patriot, but maybe could all learn
from his ability to be heroic without using force. Perhaps you could use the
book as a way to discuss the complexity if the ideas of history. The mythic
Salomon seems to be a character who puts his money where his mouth is, lives by
his wits, and who doesn't have to shoot and kill to get his point across. And
if the life of this unique patriot gets us rethink our foolishly confident
definition of what a "patriot" is—then that can only make our
children into smart, more reflective American Jews.