Jews in early American history made up only a small percent of the population, and even some of the most prominent among them may seem like shadowy figures in children’s books. Judah Touro Didn’t Want to be Famous rescues one such figure from the shadows, emphasizing Judah Touro’s broadly generous philanthropy as a specifically Jewish value. Dramatic descriptions of Touro’s early struggles and later success create a sympathetic picture of this Jewish and American hero. Touro did not forget either his own people or his neighbors as he personified the American ideal of self-realization. As the book’s title implies, humility remained a core value for this shopkeeper-turned-benefactor, whose Jewish tradition taught him that wealth conferred obligation.
Touro (1775−1854) was born into a Sephardic family in Newport, Rhode Island where his father was the cantor of one of the earliest synagogues in the American colonies. Audrey Ades interprets the young man’s voyage to the southern city of New Orleans as a courageous act. While his father had been a religious leader, Judah needs to find his own path, believing that “God had a plan for him, too.” In the new United States of America, men were not limited to their fathers’ trades; Judah’s story becomes an example of the personal initiative prized in an expanding economy and the importance of recognizing each individual’s specific talents. As Judah’s ship enters the harbor of New Orleans, he reasons that “A busy harbor meant trade /And trade was a business Judah knew well.”
The book is consistent in emphasizing the dignity of Judah’s choice. Although he continues to question if his career will be as worthy as those of his ancestors, circumstances will affirm the validity of his chosen path. Injured in combat in the War of 1812, Judah’s recovery allows him the time to consider how he can use his accomplishments to better the life of his city. As Ades explains in her “Author’s Notes,” Touro left neither a diary nor letters; the thoughts and motives she ascribes to him are imagined. She uses highly-charged emotional language when speculating about Touro’s reasons for providing help to so many: “His gut ached for the children who begged for food…he sobbed for families torn apart by diseases….” It is certainly reasonable to assume that strong feelings were the basis of his actions, although it is equally likely that knowledge of Jewish law played a part. In her notes, Ades attributes the secrecy of Touro’s endowments to charitable organizations and Maimonides’ praise of anonymous giving.
The pages devoted to Touro’s opposition to slavery are the most difficult to document and Ades does not include a list of sources for her book. The economy of New Orleans was deeply rooted in enslaved labor. Some biographical articles about Touro suggest that he may have owned a slave and emancipated him, and others imply that he bought enslaved people in order to free them. Certainly, the picture of Touro as a confirmed abolitionist is an appealing one, but the truth may be more complex. His charitable legacy is undoubtedly ecumenical, as he funded both Jewish and Christian organizations, as well as many public resources including schools, parks, and hospitals.
Vivien Mildenberger’s vivid illustrations, with the simplicity of crayons and colored pencils, will be appealing to children. Young Touro’s wild, black curls, the deep red coats on British soldiers, and identifiable emotions on character’s faces work with the text in a seamless dialogue. Her artwork renders Touro’s life anything but abstract, making the man who “gave away more money than any American of his time” a real person to understand and admire.
Judah Touro Didn’t Want to Be Famous is highly recommended. It includes “Author’s Notes” and additional facts about Touro’s life.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.