Pocketbook Patriotism for Playground Pishers


American Patriot
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 Revolution. Salomon 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 dog.

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 the story."

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.


The 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.