cover image L'CHAIM! TO JEWISH LIFE IN AMERICA: Celebrating from 1654 Until Today

L'CHAIM! TO JEWISH LIFE IN AMERICA: Celebrating from 1654 Until Today

Susan Goldman Rubin, . . Abrams, $24.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-8109-5035-1

Published in association with the Jewish Museum, this celebration of "the 350th anniversary of the first recorded Jewish settlement in North America" (according to the preface) takes a sincere approach and brims with wonderful photographs, but falls short in several crucial areas. Rubin's writing comes alive, for instance, when she chronicles the involvement of Jews in the labor movement—the chapter includes compelling characters (such as redheaded Rose, a Polish immigrant, who began working in a cap factory at age 13 and helped organize Local 23) and genuine dramatic tension. But often the narrative takes on a pallid tone (e.g., "On the whole, American Jews, including those who were hardly observant, shared a desire after World War II to give their children a strong Jewish identity"). The history comes across as either stitched-together anecdotes or as grand sweeps that may not leave much of an impression on readers. And the book leaves out the ways in which Jewish children have contributed to (and are often the raison d'etre for) vibrant synagogue life (e.g., the role that summer camps, Hebrew school, youth groups and Jewish community centers have played in forging young American Jewish identities). Still, the photographs are so evocative that they almost compensate for these shortcomings. Among the highlights: an 1893 photograph of a teenage immigrant lost in a book amid the hubbub of a crowded ship headed for America, early 20th-century images of Jewish cowboys looking very much at home on the range, and a 1913 map of America spelling out each state's name phonetically in Hebrew ("Iowa" clearly tested the limits of the Hebrew alphabet). Ages 10-up. (Nov.)