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Mordecai: An Early American Family

Mordecai: An Early American Family

by Emily Bingham

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An Intimate Portrait of a Jewish American Family in America's First Century

Mordecai is a brilliant multigenerational history at the forefront of a new way of exploring our past, one that follows the course of national events through the relationships that speak most immediately to us—between parent and child, sibling and sibling, husband


An Intimate Portrait of a Jewish American Family in America's First Century

Mordecai is a brilliant multigenerational history at the forefront of a new way of exploring our past, one that follows the course of national events through the relationships that speak most immediately to us—between parent and child, sibling and sibling, husband and wife. In Emily Bingham's sure hands, this family of southern Jews becomes a remarkable window on the struggles all Americans were engaged in during the early years of the republic.

Following Washington's victory at Yorktown, Jacob and Judy Mordecai settled in North Carolina. Here began a three generational effort to match ambitions to accomplishments. Against the national backdrop of the Great Awakenings, Nat Turner's revolt, the free-love experiments of the 1840s, and the devastation of the Civil War, we witness the efforts of each generation's members to define themselves as Jews, patriots, southerners, and most fundamentally, middle-class Americans. As with the nation's, their successes are often partial and painfully realized, cause for forging and rending the ties that bind child to parent, sister to brother, husband to wife. And through it all, the Mordecais wrote—letters, diaries, newspaper articles, books. Out of these rich archives, Bingham re-creates one family's first century in the United States and gives this nation's early history a uniquely personal face.

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)

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An Early American Family

By Emily Bingham

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2004 Emily Bingham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3005-5

A solitary blessing few can find;Our joys with those we love are intertwined;And he whose wakeful tenderness removesTh' obstructing thorn that wounds the friend he loves,Smooths not another's rugged path alone,But scatters roses to adorn his own ... 
Small slights, contempt, neglect, unmix'd with hateMake up in number what they want in weight.These and a thousand griefs minute as these,Corrode our comfort and destroy our peace. 
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. 1 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 feelsensations 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."2Swept 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."3It 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.4Jacob and Judy inhabited the world of colonial-era American Jews, whose population did not exceed two or three thousand.5 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 Yorkresenting his father-in-law, feeling betrayed by his mother, and seething in fury at his stepfather.6Part 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.7Moses 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.8 They settled in Philadelphia, where Moses rose from peddling to small-time brokering, but he never achieved prominence as a merchant.9 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 Englishofficers 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.10Franks 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.11 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-occupiedNew York. The two young people, perhaps while discovering their shared interest in books, fell in love.12While 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.13Other 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.14Cohen 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 inany 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.15A 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.16Jacob 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.17 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.18 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."19 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, andsocial 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.20 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. 21 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.Copyright © 2003 by Emily Bingham

Excerpted from Mordecai by Emily Bingham. Copyright © 2004 Emily Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Emily Bingham is an independent scholar living in Louisville, Kentucky. Mordecai is her first book.
Emily Bingham is the great-niece of Henrietta Bingham. She is the author of Mordecai: An Early American Family and co-editor of The Southern Agrarians and the New Deal: Essays After I'll Take My Stand. She earned a Ph.D. from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and frequently teaches at Centre College. She lives with her family in Louisville, Kentucky.

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