October 31, 2002
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin recounts stories from Jewish immigrants with a creative touch.
"The Golden Land: The Story of Jewish Immigration to America" by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Harmony Books, $29.95).
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin begins this clever, coffee-table tome by noting that only three days after Spain's pious rulers, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, expelled their 200,000 Jewish subjects in 1492 for no reason other than their stubborn insistence on worshipping God, Columbus set sail for India. However, Columbus and his three ships and crew (90 members, five of whom were Marannos, or secret Jews) arrived in the New World, part of which, the United States, "would come to house the largest, most prosperous and most successful Jewish community in Diaspora history."
This illustrates, the rabbi writes, "that at the time of greatest catastrophes, God's deliverance is already being prepared."
The tale of that deliverance unto the shores of "The Golden Land," or America, is what Telushkin sets about detailing through prose and, most cleverly, lavish graphic illustration.
The book documents successive waves of Jewish immigration to America, from the Germans and Eastern Europeans in the 19th and early 20th centuries to the refugees from the Nazis in the 1930s-40s to the Soviet Jews in the 1970s-80s. It tracks how these immigrants transformed their newfound freedom and opportunity into remarkable achievements in commerce, medicine, entertainment, music and literature.
Telushkin, whose prose is lucid and precise, converts this oft-told tale into an eye-popping delight. No mere photo suffices to illustrate the letter President George Washington sent to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I., in 1790 assuring its members of equal rights in America. Instead, a small replica of the letter is affixed to the page, and readers can pull it out for a you-are-there feel. Likewise, there is a small daily prayer book that a German Jewish woman carried with her across the ocean to a new life in 1875.
Other fun finds within: a pamphlet advertising a Yiddish theater production, a handwritten copy of Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus," and a multilingual flyer urging Cleveland immigrants to send their children to public schools.
Telushkin is the author of many books popularizing aspects of Jewish culture and religion, including "The Book of Jewish Values" and "Jewish Literacy." He is also rabbi at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. This book may be less weighty than those others, but for children and young adults, it is more alluring.
The book's last two pages deal with, "What Made the 'Golden Land' Truly Golden." While there has been anti-Semitism in America, Telushkin writes, "what sets America off from so many other societies in which Jews have lived has been the country's openness to Jews, an openness that even predated the large-scale arrival of Jews in America."
President John Adams wrote that "in spite of Voltaire [the 18th Century French intellectual and blatant anti-Semite] ... I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation."
This book is a celebration of that civilization -- and a Chanuka present waiting to happen.
Joseph Telushkin will discuss his new book, "The Golden Land: The Story of Jewish Immigration To America," on Sunday, Nov. 3 at the Pasadena Temple and Jewish Center, 1434 N. Altadena Dr., Pasadena at 7:30 p.m. $25 (general), $20 (seniors and students). Refreshments will be served. For more information or tickets, call The Jewish Federation of The Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656.