You might call him the original Founding Father. We're not talking about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or any of the other storied figures so central to this city's history. This particular founder predates those mensches by a few years — a few thousand years, that is.
We're talkin' Moses here, and the man from Mount Sinai is at the center of the latest book by bestselling author Bruce Feiler,America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story. Having previously penned a trio of books on biblical history (includingWalking the Bible, Abraham and Where God Was Born), Feiler this time turns his sights on the formative role he feels Moses has played throughout American history — from the Pilgrims all the way to Barack Obama.
The book came about, in part, after the birth of Feiler's twin daughters and all the travels the family took to show off the newborns to relatives. During these trips, the writer said that he observed, in a number of different places, how prominent a role Moses played throughout the nation's history.
"I really had the sense that, 'Oh, my gosh, Moses has inspired more Americans than any other figure,' and I should go tell this story," he said.
On Nov. 8, the writer will discuss his book at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County, as well as how to build bridges among faiths in the 21st century.
Feiler's remarks will be the inaugural address in this year's lecture series at the shul.
Part of Feiler's book is set in Philadelphia. The city has long been close to his heart: It was the first area in the Northeast that the native of Savannah, Ga., ever visited, and a number of his family members have attended the University of Pennsylvania.
Feiler, who is Jewish, noted the significance of having the city's new Museum of American Jewish History located so close to so many historic structures.
"American life is about the juggling act between freedom and law, and that's what the Moses story is about," he said. "You've got the crossing of the Red Sea followed by the law of the Ten Commandments; in Philadelphia, you've got the great freedom of … the [American] Revolution followed by the law of the Constitutional Convention — and in both cases, there was a period of chaos in between."
Since Walking the Bible was published in 2001 (followed by a PBS series), Feiler has become a best-selling historian of the Bible. But that wasn't always his chosen field; his first four books cover subjects as diverse as circus life, modern country music and the British class system.
When it came to researching the Five Books of Moses, he said that he was struck at first by the fact that so many places mentioned in the Pentateuch are "real places you can actually live and touch and feel," adding that the motive behind his books was to "retrace the Bible and become a part of it."
Yet after the success of that book — and further travels and research for his other Bible- related titles — he noted that he found himself interested less and less in the archaeology of where it all happened, and more interested in the meaning behind those stories and their relevance for today's world.
In fact, he he hoped his latest offering might help reshape the "conversation about religion in America" since so much history has been based around common themes and characters.
Feiler insisted that the Moses narrative belongs to more than just the Founding Fathers: "Blacks, Jews and women all use these same stories to kind of reclaim their part of the American dream."