Claude Rains wears a tricorn and a tallis as Haym Salomon in a still from "Sons of Liberty" from 1939. (Screenshot)
Claude Rains wears a tricorn and a tallis as Haym Salomon in a still from "Sons of Liberty" from 1939. (Screenshot)

Saluting Jewish founding father Haym Salomon this Independence Day

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In 1939, Warner Bros. released a short film called “Sons of Liberty” that told the story of Haym Salomon, a Jewish businessman who raised and gave a significant sum of money to Gen. George Washington’s revolutionary army.

The 20-minute film, a talkie in Technicolor, starred Claude Rains as Salomon and won an Oscar for best two-reel short that year. San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El screened the film that fall, followed by a talk from Rabbi Morton Bauman called “Backgrounds in the Founding of this Country.”

While the film educated the general public about Salomon, Jewish newspapers like ours had long described him as a forgotten hero of the Revolutionary War and as the Jewish founding father.

As Independence Day approaches, it seems like an appropriate time to delve into Salomon’s story.

Born in 1740 in Poland to a Sephardic family, he came to the U.S. as an adult amid revolutionary fervor. He apparently earned a living as a broker and a dealer in foodstuffs. He joined the revolutionaries and scraped up money for the cause.  

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, he loaned the fledgling nation an estimated $600,000 of his own money. About half of that amount was never repaid.

In 1939, our publication announced the making of the film: “The man the American historians somehow forgot, Haym Salomon, has been remembered at last — not by the historians — but by Warner Brothers.”

The film is highly propagandistic, but in an interesting way. It’s rife with subtle ways of hinting that Jews can be patriotic, noble and munificent. 

“Sons of Liberty” rests on the decision by Rains (or perhaps by Jewish director Michael Curtiz) to play Salomon as almost comically dignified and high-minded. Though he’s known as the revolution’s financier, which could play into tropes about Jews, the movie makes a significant effort to convince the general audience of the moral character of this Jewish patriot.

There are a number of extremely subtle nods to his Judaism. 

In a courtyard scene, Salomon is asked why he’s hanging around with a group of revolutionaries. 

“Liberty,” he answers, mentioning various kinds of liberty and ending with the “right to worship as we please.”

In 1939 we carried news of “Sons of Liberty,” a film about Haym Salomon, financier of the revolution. (J. Archives)

In another scene in a prison, a dirty man approaches Salomon.  “I was your neighbor,” the man says, with an accent. 

“Jacob!” cries Salomon. 

In one transparent effort to underline the humanity of Jews, Jacob wants to obtain a Bible for a “good Christian lad” who is condemned to death. Conveniently, the “lad,” Nathan Hale, wishes to hear Psalm 23, which Salomon knows, highlighting the kinship of Jews and Christians.

With all of this heavy-handed hinting, the film actually never mentions the word “Jew” or “Jewish.”

Yet there is a scene showing worship in a synagogue, where Salomon receives a letter from Washington. While it’s odd to see tricorn hats on the bimah, the power of the scene is notable.

Even Salomon’s rabbi agrees — and on Yom Kippur of all days — that Washington’s business trumps the service. Salomon gives a speech, and the Jewish community opens their wallets. The viewer is also reminded that Jewish “sons” have died in the revolution and that the contribution of Jews is more than from their pocketbooks. Salomon himself was arrested twice by the British on spying charges, but managed to escape.

At the end of the film, Salomon is on his deathbed. Because it is Shabbat, he refuses to sign the letter that would ensure he is repaid. He’s too ill to sign but still manages to give a speech about liberty and to recite the Declaration of Independence.

In real life, he died young — in his mid-40s — in 1785.

A 1939 review in our publication describes “Sons of Liberty” as “consistently absorbing, exciting and dramatic.”

“Here and there are crude spots. Claude Rains, for example, doesn’t look too convincing in a talith — in the synagogue scene, where on Yom Kippur eve he raises funds for the Continental Army at the urgent request of General Washington. But taken by and large, ‘Sons of Liberty’ does a grand job of remembering a man who has too long been forgotten and of striking a blow for democracy.”

Whether or not it’s a realistic depiction of Salomon, “Sons of Liberty” played to the hopes and fears of Jewish Americans. In 1939, our readers were already well aware of shocking incidents in Europe. 

“Persecution and intolerance drove my family into exile,” Salomon says in the film, drawing the connection between the persecution of the colonists and the persecution of Jews. It’s a common refrain that will hit home for many.

“I came to America in search of liberty,” he says. “I found it here.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.