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Thursday, May 15th, 2003


 

Mordecai

by

Southern Discomfort

A review by Jenna Weissman Joselit

More than two centuries ago, Americans found God (again). They are "turning religious as fast as they can conveniently fall, without hurting one another," related one observer in 1810 as a flurry of Protestant revivals, which historians call the Second Great Awakening, swept the South. Among those touched by the "sweet but powerful tie of Christian affection" were several members of the Mordecais, an extended Southern Jewish family whose roots pre-dated the American Revolution. "[I want to] cast myself at the foot of the cross, and be washed in the purifying blood of atonement," Rachel Mordecai Lazarus wrote to her father Jacob in 1835, informing him of her decision to convert to Christianity. A staunch member of the Richmond Jewish community, Jacob Mordecai did not take kindly to the news. In what Rachel would later describe as a "soulharrowing" scene, her father thundered, stormed, and issued all manner of maledictions upon her head until she promised to give up on the idea of conversion, at least for the time being. (Rachel eventually converted when she was at death's door. "Let me die a Christian," she reportedly said.)

The stuff of high drama, this episode and hundreds of other, less wrenching moments in the collective life of the Mordecais can be found in the clan's voluminous collection of letters. Having survived both the passage of time and the accumulation of dust, the family correspondence spans the 1780s on through the Civil War. This "faithful band of love and duty" availed themselves of the nation's newly established postal system, making a point of keeping in touch. Over the course of several generations, wherever they settled — Warrenton, North Carolina, or Richmond; Mobile, Alabama, or West Point — the Mordecais exchanged thousands of gossipy, newsy letters with one another.

Virtually everything, it seemed, was grist for the mail: schoolgirl crushes and domestic squabbles, the purchase of new curtains, the difficulty in obtaining "commemorative crackers" — matzoh — for Passover, debilitating illness, mountains of bills, questions of faith. At once earnest and straightforward, impassioned and overwrought, charming and fey, the Mordecai letters provide readers of the twenty-first century with a keen sense of what it was like to live, to love, and to wrangle in the nineteenth century. They also enlarge our understanding of American Jewish history, making it vividly clear that Jewish life in the New World was not just an artifact of mass Eastern European immigration but also a much earlier phenomenon all its own. Add to this the fact that the Mordecais appear to be a likable lot and their letters are nothing short of irresistible. You might say that they are the Louds of the nineteenth century.

Like a number of historians before her, Emily Bingham, an independent scholar, was among those beguiled by the members of this tribe and their epistolary revelations. Her book exhaustively mines both the Mordecais' correspondence and the supplementary collections of their diaries and personal papers to furnish a finely grained portrait of a Southern Jewish clan whose members, more often than not, were at odds with one another, especially when it came to matters of belief. Some Mordecais made a point of holding tight to their Judaism. Having been born a Jewess, a Jewess I "must remain," declared Julia Mordecai in the face of proselytizing teachers. Others (the menfolk mainly) intermarried and reared their children as Christians, prompting Jacob Mordecai to lament the scarcity of eligible Jewish women for his sons to marry. There are just not many Jewish girls to "be had," he glumly acknowledged in 1823 from his home in Richmond.

Still other Mordecais — lots of them, in fact — actually converted to Christianity, their hearts swayed by the "final conviction of the truth as it is in Jesus," or by their spouses. A number of family members went even further, espousing free love, communitarianism, and the water cure. By 1913, when Caroline Myers Cohen, a Mordecai descendant, took pen in hand to publish a private family history, the number of Mordecais who remained Jewish could be counted on one hand.

Bingham's story opens with the patriarch Jacob Mordecai, who, on the eve of the American Revolution, overcame inauspicious beginnings — his father, Moses Mordecai, was a transplanted British convict; his mother Esther, ne Elizabeth Whitlock, was a convert to Judaism — to move comfortably among stalwart members of colonial society's Sephardic elite such as Haym Solomon, the legendary financier who signed his Jewish marriage contract, and Myer Myers, New York's leading silversmith, who became his father-in-law. Setting down roots in the South in 1787, where he experienced a number of upsets (his beloved first wife died, his business failed), Jacob Mordecai went on to father thirteen children and to open a highly respected academy for girls in North Carolina known far and wide as the Mordecai School, where, in the interests of "female improvement," girls were taught the three R's, "geography and the use of the globes," needlework and manners. In due course Jacob Mordecai prospered, becoming a pillar of both local society and Southern Jewry.

Jacob's offspring also did well in antebellum America. Despite an occasional bout with anti-Semitism, some of it directed at the family's unmistakably Jewish name — it sets them apart and marks them as belonging "to the tribe," wrote Rachel to her brother Solomon — the Mordecais racked up an impressive record of accomplishments. One son had the distinction of being the first American Jew to pass the bar in North Carolina; another was graduated from West Point (at the top of his class, no less) at a time when Jewish cadets were a rarity indeed. Marrying well, Jacob's daughters and granddaughters took up the lives of middle-class Southern women. They did good works, tended to their needlework, supervised their household slaves, endured multiple pregnancies, read a lot (Mary Wollstonecraft was a particular favorite), and, with increasing frequency, turned their hearts toward Christ.

Meanwhile, Jacob's grandchildren, who came of age in the 1840s and 1850s, found salvation elsewhere. Ellen Lazarus ran away from the South in 1845 to join a commune on 10th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. Surrounded by artists, radical reformers, and other defiantly unconventional folk, she came to learn things no lady should know, or so complained her relatives. Her brother, Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, fell for Fourier and his utopianism. Named for his grandfather Marks, he embroiled himself in the workings of Brook Farm and its ecumenically minded Church of Humanity, and later became a tireless advocate of free love.

All the while, as tongues wagged and tempers grew short, everyone was busily confiding in their diaries and writing letters to everyone else about everyone else. With such juicy material, and so much of it, you might expect the Mordecais to leap off the page. But, alas, they don't — not in this book, anyway. Instead of letting the Mordecais and their actions speak for themselves, Bingham intrudes too much. The Mordecais, she informs us again and again and again, are a "mythic family," bound by a special "covenant" that renders them exemplars of "enlightened domesticity." Sounding the same banal note repeatedly, even across the generations, Bingham subordinates her complicated characters to an interpretation that renders them lifeless, inert abstractions in thrall to some organizing principle. Little wonder, then, that the Mordecais that inhabit Bingham's book emerge less as a fascinating collection of flawed human beings than as the armature of a pop-sociological category: the ideal family, whose members "pledged to stick by one another through thick and thin, to recognize their God but always tolerate others, and to improve themselves and the world around them."

More problematic still is Bingham's understanding of the Mordecais' triangulated identity as bourgeois, Southern, and Jewish. She seems to have difficulty reckoning with the last element of that rich equation. Referring to the family's ongoing attempts to find a place for itself in the South, she writes: "Being Jewish compounded every aspect of these efforts, but to reduce our understanding of these efforts to their being Jewish is to do the Mordecais — and ourselves — a gross disservice." But hang on a minute. Who said anything about "reducing" the Mordecais, let alone the complexities of being Jewish in America? Surely not the subjects of this book, whose letters make clear that their religion was of a piece with their social status and their national pride, and not just a pesky ethnic piece of a puzzle that refuses to fall neatly into place. If anyone is doing the "reducing," it is Bingham: the Jewish dimensions of this story interest her little. By Bingham's lights, Jewishness is a residual category that annoyingly impedes or complicates the Mordecais' steady march into the middle class and what she describes as the "protean nature of the family's evolving covenant with themselves and the wider worlds in which they increasingly moved." The Mordecais, we are told, are an American family, as if being an American Jewish family were somehow a contradiction in terms.

Bingham's limited and seriously flawed reading of the relationship between Americanness and Jewishness may also account for her show of reticence when it comes to the conversion of multiple Mordecais, whose musings on the attractions of Christianity take up much of the book. Bingham points out that the apostasy of some family members ruptured the fabled family covenant and occasioned profound domestic rifts between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, aunts and nieces (you get the picture), rifts that prompted one of their number, Eliza Kennon Mordecai Myers, to write that "our family has never been the same in point of union, happiness, and I will even add respectability, since the spirit of proselytism entered it"; but then Bingham has little to say. You get the feeling that, in her scheme of things, conversion is the natural, just, and inevitable outcome of becoming an American, the quintessential happy ending.

But as the family's own writings attest, there is far more to the Mordecais and their encounter with America than Bingham's account would have readers believe. If anything, the story of the Mordecais suggests the manifold possibilities of Jewish life in the New World, and not just the inevitability of its foreclosure. Yes, apostasy and conversion were rife during the Mordecais' collective lifetime — so much so that the Jews of antebellum America probably outpaced their Old World cousins in the frequency and the ease with which they jettisoned their Jewishness. At the same time, though, American Jews, in both the South and the North, including a number of Mordecais, were also building synagogues, establishing Jewish charitable associations, publishing Jewish books, and, in ways large and small, domestic and public, fashioning an American Jewish existence. To lose sight of this dimension of the Mordecai family saga is to render a "gross disservice" to the Mordecais, to latter-day readers of their letters, and, above all, to history. "And thus it goes with every generation," Emma Mordecai wisely wrote, "changing and passing away, thoughts, feelings, lives.


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