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Children’s Book Review: Jews of the Wild West: A Multicultural True Story, by Kay Miller

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Based on her research into her family’s history, retired New York City public school teacher Kay Miller has written and illustrated a book, Jews of the Wild West: A Multicultural True Story aiming at an audience from eight to 108, (read eight to ten). Beginning with the emigration of two young German Jewish brothers, Abraham and Zadock (the name, unfortunately, is spelled three different ways on the same page) Staab, first to Virginia and eventually to New Mexico, she describes both their business success and the importance of their role in developing the west. She then moves to the other branch of the family descended from another German Jewish immigrant, Charles Ilfeld, who also became a successful entrepreneur in New Mexico.

She traces the growth of the families through the end of the 19th century until their eventual merger through the marriage of Abraham Staab’s daughter to Charles Ilfeld’s brother-in-law and the birth of their son Robert Nordhaus in 1909. Nordhaus was eventually to become a lawyer who would argue a case on behalf of the Jicarilla Apaches before the Supreme Court. While the story does make a significant point about the role Jewish immigrants played in the development of the west, especially the economic development, I have some question about just how exciting a story it would make at my eight year old grandson’s bedtime.

True, there are Indians; there is even an anecdote about Billy the Kid, but the emphasis is on business and social responsibility. Abraham helps an Archbishop with the money to build a church,, and the Archbishop has the Hebrew word for God carved above a side entrance to express his gratitude. Charles gives a freed slave a job managing the stables at his hotel, and the man was eventually able to provide successfully for his family. The book’s emphasis on multiculturalism is admirable, but while this kind of narrative may be instructive; it is something less than enthralling.

Miller’s illustrations are in the American primitive tradition. Each is a full page framed with a border and opposite a page of text. They are colorful, and, while more often than not they focus on the central figures, there are pictures that might be more likely to capture the younger imagination. A young Robert Nordhaus slides down the banister. A Hopi snake dancer holds aloft a snake acting out a prayer for rain. A huge buffalo stares out at the reader, a tiny bird perched on its back.

According to the author the book is selling at the National American Jewish History Museum in Philadelphia, the New Mexico History Museum and the Spertus Museum in Chicago. It is also available from her website.

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