Judah Touro Didn’t Want to Be Famous

Audrey Ades, Vivien Milden­berg­er (illus.)

By – April 8, 2020

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 (17751854) 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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Audrey Ades’ biog­ra­phy of Judah Touro (1775 – 1854)presents a phil­an­thropist who not only helps those in need accord­ing to the social stan­dards of his time, but who also qui­et­ly breaks and con­tra­dicts the iso­la­tion­ist and racist world view of the soci­ety in which he lives. How refresh­ing to engage with this sto­ry of gen­eros­i­ty in which the subject/​the pro­tag­o­nist helps improve life for peo­ple and groups both with­in and beyond the mores of his time. Touro was a Jew­ish busi­ness­man who donat­ed to assist in such caus­es of decreas­ing home­less­ness, aid­ing the sick, and sup­port­ing edu­ca­tion. But he was also able to see and under­stand human­i­ty beyond the sur­round­ing world view and sit­u­a­tion — he pro­mot­ed free­dom of reli­gion for Chris­tians as well as for Jews, and he active­ly worked to eman­ci­pate, edu­cate, and train for­mer­ly enslaved African Amer­i­cans. Born in New­port, Rhode Island, he sailed to New Orleans in 1801 and devel­oped a suc­cess­ful busi­ness there. He fought in the War of 1812, was wound­ed, and spent a year recov­er­ing in the home of his friend, Rezin Shep­herd. It was after this year of reflec­tion that Judah start­ed giv­ing away his wealth anony­mous­ly — he tried to make sure that his gen­eros­i­ty occurred with No cer­e­monies, speech­es, or pic­tures.” He wasn’t entire­ly suc­cess­ful in keep­ing his sto­ry secret, and that’s why Audrey Ades can share her affect­ing retelling with us. Vivien Mildenberger’s illus­tra­tions are engag­ing and seduc­tive, as if the sub­tle misty air of New Orleans were bring­ing nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry scenes in and out of focus. Ades’ sto­ry­telling and Mildenberger’s illus­tra­tions work togeth­er to present a Judah Touro known for the good­ness of his actions.