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Mordecai: An Early American Family

Mordecai: An Early American Family

by Bingham

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Independent scholar Bingham has written a history of an early Jewish-American family—a remarkable family rooted in America well before the mass migrations of Jews from Eastern Europe. The difficulties of defining themselves as Jews and as Americans in a primarily Christian country spurred some members of the family to copious amounts of writing—letters and


Independent scholar Bingham has written a history of an early Jewish-American family—a remarkable family rooted in America well before the mass migrations of Jews from Eastern Europe. The difficulties of defining themselves as Jews and as Americans in a primarily Christian country spurred some members of the family to copious amounts of writing—letters and various histories and other publications—which are the basis of Bingham's research. The story of this family intertwines with that of the nation; and the tensions among generations, within the Jewish community, and in interaction with the larger community speak to the experiences of Americans then and now. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1815, Alfred Mordecai, the son of a middle-class Jewish family from Warrenton, N.C., applied as a cadet to West Point, "a bold bid for a Jew." Despite high odds, Alfred was accepted-another step in the complex assimilation of the Mordecai family into U.S. society. Bingham, an independent scholar, draws on a large cache of letters and journals written by members of the Mordecai family and a wealth of other published material, to piece together a detailed history of this remarkable Southern Jewish clan. The Mordecais' history is deftly charted through thee generations beginning with Jacob and Judith moving to Virginia from Philadelphia in 1785, through Jacob's founding, with his grown children, of a renowned primary school and the conversion to Christianity of some family members during the Second Great Awakening of the mid-19th century. From there, Bingham follows the family sundering that occurred in the 1860s, when most of the family supported the Confederacy, and Alfred, refusing either to side with them or to support the war in any way, resigned from the Union army. But as thrilling as this family history is, Bingham's great feat here is to show, through the social, political and religious evolutions of one family, how class, race, ethnicity, region and intellectual affiliation profoundly affected assimilation in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Bingham's prose is as fluid as fiction, but she never sacrifices historical insight for narrative drive or soft-pedals such uncomfortable material as the Mordecais owning slaves. This is an important addition not only to Jewish studies but to the literature on family and gender relations in the 19th century. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bingham’s debut presents Jews in knee-breeches and hoop skirts, capturing the chosen people’s romance with America in a family history through three generations. From the days shortly after the Revolution, when founding father Jacob Mordecai established an ethical covenant with his progeny, through the post-Civil War national expansion, when the clan’s cohesive spirit dissipated, the Mordecais were active in education, commerce, and spiritual matters. Leaving the North, Jacob quickly established roots in antebellum North Carolina, keeping store there as many coreligionists would do in years to come. When business faltered, the Mordecais undertook the education of young southern belles while also attending to the moral and mental improvement of family members. As the years passed, some engaged in finance, some in military service or law, while others remained bookish and quite concerned with matters relating to their souls. With strains on traditional practices, assimilation and intermarriage were surely inevitable, and the Mordecais’ activities foreshadow the subsequent advent of Judaism’s Reform movement. Divergent philosophies produced defection and apostasy; several members of the family embraced Jesus as Savior. But religion was not all that affected the family: Bingham hints at incest and shows the War Between the States dividing the one-time slaveholders; proto-communist notions and the utopianism of Brook Farm appealed to some Mordecais; others were enticed by free love; and one physician grappled with the problem of his frequent wet dreams. Crafting a family history that might have captivated Thomas Mann, the author paints distinct, expressive portraits of Rachel, Moses, Ellen,George, and all their kin; the distaff side is particularly vivid, perhaps because the women were prolific writers who produced considerable primary-source material. In many ways a case study in assimilation, the Mordecais’ story is not unique, but it is unusually well documented. Depicted with precision and sympathy: the adventures of a single family prove to also be the story of how America changed Judaism in the 19th century. (16 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)
From the Publisher

“Emily Bingham's carefully researched, beautifully written and totally unforgettable saga throws light on never-before-revealed aspects of religion and life in the antebellum South. A remarkable tale of the making and the unmaking of an early American Jewish family.” —Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University.

“With a historian's care and a novelist's sense of story, Emily Bingham has brought to life the progression through the early decades of the United States of an unfamiliar, and remarkable, kind of family: Southern Jews, who had to struggle to reconcile loyalty to their tradition with membership in a regional society where it had not yet taken root. It's a testament to Bingham's skill that she has made the Mordecais feel every bit as loving and complicated as families really are.” —Nick Lemann, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

“Emily Bingham's Mordecai: An Early American Family, is a remarkable story, in many ways almost a paradigm of the Jewish historical experience in the South, whether antebellum or later. Better than any comparable book I've read, it embodies both the dilemmas and opportunities involved in an intensely American drama.” —Louis D. Rubin, Jr., author of My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews

“This account of a Jewish family in the Old South makes an original and illuminating contribution to our understanding of the formation of American nationhood--and marks the debut of a remarkably talented young historian” —Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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6.04(w) x 9.42(h) x 1.17(d)

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An Early American Family

By Emily Bingham

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 2003 Emily Bingham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8090-2756-9



It took Jacob Mordecai five days to ride by horseback from Philadelphia to Richmond in 1783. Cold and wet, fording flooded rivers, sometimes losing his way on muddy unmarked roads, he was on the move like so many others after Yorktown. The last redcoats had boarded vessels to carry them back across the Atlantic, and everywhere Americans, liberated from the restriction, stagnation, and uncertainty of an eight-year war, set out like Jacob to make new lives or resume those interrupted by the conflict. Possessing few means of his own, the twenty-one-year-old Mordecai had received a boost from his stepfather, Jacob I. Cohen; he was now junior partner in the Richmond mercantile and investment firm Cohen, Isaacs, and Mordecai. Prospects were good for young Jacob, and not only in business, for he had transcended the hardships of his sodden journey by thinking about Judy Myers.

Indeed, his "heart" was so "fraught with affection and esteem" for Judy that as soon as he settled into his quarters at the tavern Jacob unburdened himself in an eleven-page letter to her in Philadelphia. "I feel sensations too great for the narrow limits of expression," Jacob wrote, "[sensations] which my heart has long told me must continue until vast eternity shall terminate an existence you alone can render happy." Judy's hazel eyes and smooth features seemed to dance before him; her lively but tender manner made his "heart beat with pleasure and delight." Jacob concluded the love letter with a plea and a proposal: "Endeavor my dearest girl to render mutual an affection which I have no doubt will tend to make life's tedious length with pleasure roll."

Swept up by handsome young Mordecai and his passionate way with words, Judy soon granted Jacob his "most fervent wish." But in the dark months that Jacob worked and saved in Richmond, Judy waited impatiently for their plan to come to fruition. In the spring of 1784 he was ready and, flush with success, spurred his mount northward to New York, to which Judy and her family had returned after the British withdrawal. There, on June 16, the marriage contract was signed and a ring slipped on Judy's finger; the synagogue's reader consecrated the union, saying, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makest the bridegroom to rejoice with the bride."

It was to prove an alloyed joy.

On the eve of the wedding, in a blow that altered Jacob's career and dampened his confidence for years to come, Judy's father forbade a move to any such godforsaken backwater as Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, he declared, was no place for a Jew and especially no place for a Jewish family. Caution required Jews to stick together, assist one another, and sustain the religious community. He was willing to give Judy up to the enthusiastic young man she adored, but only if the couple remained nearby. A dutiful daughter in every way, Judy could not oppose her father's injunction, and Jacob acquiesced.

Jacob and Judy inhabited the world of colonial-era American Jews, whose population did not exceed two or three thousand. In so tiny a community, Jacob could not afford to anger elders as important as his stepfather and his father-in-law. What should have been the happiest day of his life consequently became one of the most strained. Leaving his bride, Jacob journeyed south to dissolve the partnership with Cohen and Isaacs. Settling accounts proved difficult and then unpleasant. Receiving less than he believed he was due, Jacob returned to New York resenting his father-in-law, feeling betrayed by his mother, and seething in fury at his stepfather.

Part of Jacob's uneasiness arose from the awkward circumstances surrounding his mother, Esther. When Mrs. Cohen met her first husband, Jacob's father, Moses Mordecai, she was a teenager and he was in his fifties. And her name was not Esther. Elizabeth Whitlock, born in England to Gentile parents, embraced her husband's faith and assumed a Jewish name. The means for an orthodox conversion — had she sought one — were unavailable in colonial America, which had no rabbis. Many Jews would look askance at Esther; converts were rare, and without rabbinic supervision of the ritual process the Sephardic synagogue did not recognize their legitimacy.

Moses Mordecai had his own troubling past. At the age of fifty-one, he had crossed from England to America as a convict, one of hundreds of such Jews whom British authorities transported to the colonies to work off their sentences as indentured servants. He completed his sentence, purchased a kit of small items — buttons, buckles, and sewing needles — and set off as a peddler. Somewhere in his travels, Moses met Elizabeth Whitlock. They settled in Philadelphia, where Moses rose from peddling to small-time brokering, but he never achieved prominence as a merchant. An aura of insecurity, deriving from his mother's Gentile origins and his father's shadowy past and marginal career, made for a difficult coming of age, and Jacob's first job threatened to make matters worse.

Early in the Revolutionary War, Moses Mordecai removed Jacob from a highly regarded school despite his talent as a student and set him to work as a clerk for his well-to-do friend David Franks of Philadelphia. Along with Moses Mordecai, Franks had signed the 1765 Non-importation Agreement protesting British taxes. Franks, who had made his fortune in the fur trade and by purveying to the British army during the French and Indian War, was (owing to close family and business contacts with England) in an ideal position when the Revolutionary Continental Congress needed someone to provide food and shelter for British prisoners of war. Franks's bills were to be submitted to the enemy. It could not have taken the young Jacob long to see that his employer was no American patriot; Franks fawned over the English officers in his care and dealt gently with their government. Jacob might not have blamed him. Witnessing Lord Cornwallis's entry into Philadelphia in 1777 "at the head of the British and Hessian Grenadiers, the flower of the British Army," fifteen-year-old Jacob had to admit that they looked invincible. Most of Philadelphia's Jews supported the Revolution, and fled in droves before the advancing British. David Franks and his family, however, remained, as did the Mordecais. Perhaps at seventy Moses Mordecai was too feeble to travel; perhaps he and Esther did not want Jacob to risk his promising job; perhaps their loyalties to those seeking American independence were more tenuous than his signature on the boycott lists suggests.

Franks also exposed Jacob to a family that gave every evidence of attempting to shed its Jewish identity. In business matters, Franks retained strong links to many Jews, but his sister married a British general, and Franks himself married a woman from a prominent Gentile family. Their children were reared in the mother's faith and stood aloof from Jewish religious and social life. Franks's religious and political loyalties were in doubt, and when American forces regained the city, his appointment, and with it Jacob's clerkship, teetered on the brink. In October 1778 it toppled, an unpatriotic letter having been intercepted with Franks's mail. Arrested and jailed, Franks lost his commission and his fortune. Jacob lost his job and, soon after, his father.

Moses Mordecai died on May 28, 1781. If Jacob was present, he, as the eldest son, would have closed his father's eyes and mouth. The mirrors would have been turned to the wall or covered. The family (Jacob had two younger brothers) would watch over Moses's body until it was laid to rest in the Jews Burial Ground. No will was found, but Moses was not poor. The inventory of his estate showed ready cash and real property amounting to £588 as well as notes and bonds worth £2,762. The cash soon ran out, however, and most of Moses's notes could not be redeemed. Rather than join together to meet the hardship, Moses Mordecai's family began going their separate ways, with Jacob sailing to the West Indies, perhaps in an attempt to collect money due the estate or to supervise cargo sales and purchases for import. On returning to Philadelphia in 1782, Jacob met Judy Myers, a refugee from British-occupied New York. The two young people, perhaps while discovering their shared interest in books, fell in love.

While Jacob found love, his mother faced destitution. Jacob could do little to assist her. The account of her husband's estate that Esther submitted to the register of wills showed a paper value of more than two thousand pounds, but that money seemed unlikely ever to materialize. Although she had moved to cheaper quarters, Esther could not pay the rent. Two days after submitting the account, "Widow Mordecai" appealed to Congregation Mikveh Israel for charity and received nine pounds.

Other resources waited in the wings. The same 1782 meeting of the synagogue's board that granted Esther charity also received an application for membership from Jacob I. Cohen of Virginia. At the outset of the Revolution, Cohen joined a company of volunteers in Charleston, South Carolina, but he was soon captured by the British and imprisoned. As a condition of release, Cohen could not return to Charleston, so he went briefly to Philadelphia in 1781, soon after Moses Mordecai's death. Thirty-six and never married, he was ready for an entirely new venture and for a wife. No wonder, then, that as Cohen established his business in Richmond, Virginia (where no marriageable Jewish women resided) that fall and winter, his thoughts returned to the widow in Philadelphia.

Cohen rescued Esther Mordecai from penury, promising aid to her children as well. But their wedding took place over the objections of Philadelphia's Jewish leaders, for Esther Mordecai had once been Elizabeth Whitlock, and as a member of a priestly line, Cohen by law could not marry a convert. In years past, Philadelphia's synagogue Mikveh Israel might not have been so punctilious. But in 1782 the congregation had plans for a new house of worship; it had collected fifteen hundred pounds and, inspired perhaps by hopes for a strong religious presence in the newly independent nation, acquired a renewed emphasis on religious orthodoxy. The synagogue's adjunta (council of elders) deliberated for six weeks before ordering its hazan (lay leader) not to perform the ceremony. "Neither are you to be present at the wedding, and are hereby strictly forbid [sic] to mention said Cohen or his wife's name in any respect whatsoever in the synagogue." Any member of Mikveh Israel who participated in the wedding was "subject to censure or punishment," the nearest thing to expulsion. The decision made the Mordecai boys painfully aware that, though they considered themselves Jews and were perceived as such by the non-Jewish world, when it came to other Jews, the Mordecais were not quite authentic.

A handful of friends defied the council's order and came to the couple's side. Haym Salomon, a respected broker and commission merchant, signed Cohen's ketubah (marriage contract). The elders dared not retaliate against Salomon, who had pledged to finance one-third of Mikveh Israel's building costs. As for the marriage ceremony, Cohen himself, by virtue of his priestly heritage, may have performed it.

Jacob hated being drawn into the mire. He tried hard to please and had, according to his limited means, given generously to Mikveh Israel's building campaign. On account of his mother's wedding, he now faced rebuke, even ostracism, from the congregation. On the other hand, his stepfather promised to make him his partner in Richmond. Falling in love with Judy seemed, at first, only to complicate matters further.

The heterodoxy Esther Mordecai and Jacob I. Cohen exhibited in 1782 troubled Jews who were committed to preserving religious law and ethnic tradition. One of these was the formidable father of Jacob Mordecai's beloved. Myer Myers had been a highly sought and successful colonial silversmith in New York City. Revolution interrupted this comfortable renown. In 1776, as the British advanced on the city, Myers abandoned his home and business and fled with his family to Connecticut. In 1782, the family moved to American-held Philadelphia, where his wife had relatives who could shelter them. When British troops finally abandoned New York, Myers returned "from exile," proclaiming loyalty to "a Constitution wisely framed to preserve the inestimable blessings of civil and religious liberty." But Myers was wise enough to realize that tolerance carried its own dangers. To survive as God's chosen people, to keep their faith, Jews must live together and in accordance with the law. Collaborating in business, establishing and maintaining houses of worship, assisting the needy in their midst, and social life itself — all these both sustained and depended on the culture and faith that set Jews apart from the majority of Americans. The smallness of their numbers made these matters particularly pressing. In this context it made sense that most Jews grouped in New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston, South Carolina.

When Jacob Mordecai called on Myer Myers to ask for his daughter's hand, the young man was not in a position of strength. Esther Mordecai's marriage to Jacob I. Cohen was fresh in Myer Myers's mind; he knew all the members of the Philadelphia adjunta and almost certainly approved their ruling against the wedding. By taint of his mother, Jacob was a suspect Jew. Myers also recalled the embarrassment brought on the Jewish community by Jacob's former employer, the British sympathizer David Franks, now a fugitive living in England. Further, in taking a position with Cohen, Isaacs, and Mordecai, Jacob demonstrated more pluck than promise, seeking success in hinterland Virginia rather than in an established Jewish community (so far as one existed in the new nation) such as Philadelphia or New York. Of course, this apparently bright young man could not be entirely blamed for his unfortunate associations; but by standing by his mother's marriage and accepting Cohen's assistance, Jacob had taken a road his future father-in-law found troubling at best. Myer Myers's conditional blessing on Jacob and Judy's marriage was tantamount to a conditional acceptance of the young husband-to-be's merits as a Jew, an American, and a merchant.



It galled Jacob to start again from scratch. But he had Judy. Her companionship banished much of his gloom. Jacob duly joined his in-laws' New York congregation, Shearith Israel, and a few weeks before the wedding his luck turned just as Judy assured him it would.

Myer Myers may have grumbled when Haym Salomon — the rich and respected broker who defied the Philadelphia adjunta by signing the ketubah for Jacob Cohen and Esther Mordecai — proposed opening a New York office that Jacob would operate. But Salomon was a man of character whose religious and political loyalties were beyond reproach. He had extended credit to — and refused repayment from — Revolu — tionary leaders, including James Madison, and after Cornwallis surrendered, Salomon helped stabilize the United States' currency. So reliable was Salomon in all his dealings that, according to the chronicles of early Philadelphia Jews, "his endorsement on a note made it 'undeniable.'"

Jacob Mordecai would manage auctions for Salomon, along with the usual loans, currency exchange, and wholesale commodity brokerage. But, in a pattern that would repeat over the years, Jacob, in hopes of enhancing his income, took risks beyond those required by his position with Salomon. One such risk resulted in a ship's cargo being confiscated and another's stolen. Judy soothed her husband's "grief and disappointment" and never scolded him for the losses, which yet greater troubles soon overshadowed. Eight months after forming the partnership with Jacob, Haym Salomon died. Where could Jacob turn now? By early 1785, commerce had become almost hopeless. The closing of British West Indian ports to American trade led to a collapse in prices; American paper currency depreciated against foreign standards; everywhere financial confusion reigned. The resulting depression — one of several that would plague Jacob Mordecai and his growing family — lasted most of the decade.

Just over nine months after her wedding, Judy Mordecai delivered the first of seven children. The couple named him Moses after his paternal grandfather. (Myer Myers never received this honor.) Fifteen months later, in July 1786, a second child, Sam, arrived and was circumcised under his grandfather's approving eye. The ceremony symbolized God's covenant with the Jews that they would inherit the promised land of Zion; it also reaffirmed Jacob's bond to his religious heritage. Diligently holding to his side of the bargain with his father-in-law, Jacob took an active part in Jewish communal life, and yet his standing among other Jews, and in the wider social world of the nation's emerging middle class, was increasingly dubious. His New York career was faltering badly. He kept thinking of Virginia.


Excerpted from Mordecai by Emily Bingham. Copyright © 2003 Emily Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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Meet the Author

Emily Bingham is an independent scholar living in Louisville, Kentucky. Mordecai is her first book.

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