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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 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.
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Emily Bingham is an independent scholar living in Louisville, Kentucky. This is her first book.
PART ONE THIS LITTLE FAITHFUL BAND OF LOVE AND DUTY
A solitary blessing few can find; Our joys with those we love are intertwined; And he whose wakeful tenderness removes Th' 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 hate Make up in number what they want in weight. These and a thousand griefs minute as these, Corrode our comfort and destroy our peace.
--RACHEL MORDECAI'S TRANSCRIPTION OF LINES FROM HANNAH MORE'S "SENSIBILITY" 1 ROOTS
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."2 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."3 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.4 Jacob 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.6 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.7 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.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.10 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.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.12 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.13 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 ...
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