by Bruce Feiler
(William Morrow, 335 pp., $26.99)
Bruce Feiler opens up the Exodus story in a new way by viewing it through a different lens—the history of the United States of America. "For four hundred years, one figure stands out as the surprising symbol of America," Feiler writes. "His name is Moses." The claim seems at first audacious, but Feiler makes a good case for calling Moses "America's true founding father." From the pilgrims to the present, the American story is replete with references to the Exodus story. In fact, at pivotal moments in their history, Americans have consciously sought to define the essence of being American through the biblical story of the Israelite leader.
In this highly original exposition, Feiler explores how different aspects of Moses—as liberator, lawgiver, leader of a nation under a new covenant, defender of the weak, and prophet—resonated at different times with the country's changing needs. Presidents Washington and Lincoln were both eulogized as Moses-like figures for bringing a nation back to order under rule of law. In 1939, "Superman" is modeled on Moses (the baby from a dying planet who is placed in a small rocket ship—like Moses' wicker basket—by his parents to save him, and in adulthood receives the calling to fight evil and assist humanity); in the 1956 Cold War film, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille casts Moses as an American champion of freedom against a totalitarian regime.
As in his previous books, Walking the Bible and Abraham, Feiler tries to understand stories by visiting places associated with them. At Independence Hall, he climbs the bell tower to read the inscription from Leviticus on the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." On the banks of the Ohio River, he visits safe houses used by runaway slaves to tell the story of Harriet Tubman, called "the Moses of her people." At the Mason Church outside Memphis, he recalls Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech, echoing Moses in Deuteronomy: "I have seen the promised land.... And I might not get there with you, but I want you to know...that we as a people will get to the promised land!"
"Discovering how much the biblical narrative of the Israelites has colored the vision and informed the values of twenty generations of Americans and their leaders was like discovering an entirely new window into a house I thought I knew," Feiler writes. "You can't understand American history, I now believe, without understanding Moses."
This journey into the heart of America concludes at a family seder, where Feiler reflects on what he has learned about Moses and the Exodus story from the American experience and what he hopes one day to share with his young daughters.
They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland
Before the Holocaust
by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
(University of California Press, 411 pp., $39.95)