Revolutionary Jews

Since every historian interprets sources according to her own interests and agenda, students of history will often read drastically different versions of the same story. Two recent books about Jews in early America are particularly good examples of this phenomenon, Sandra Cumings Melamed’s The Jews in Early America: A Chronicle of Good Taste and Good Deeds (Fithian Press, $15.95) overlaps with Emily Bingham’s Mordecai: An Early American Family (Hill and Wang, $26.00) in their subject matter. But the stories that they tell—and the conclusions that they draw—could not be more different.

Melamed’s The Jews in Early America talks about some of the most illustrious Jewish personalities of the American revolutionary period. As can be expected, she includes a great deal of information about well-known figures like Haym Solomon (a main financier of the American Revolution) and Rebecca Gratz (the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s heroine in Ivanhoe). However, most of the individuals featured in this book are far less famous. Her subjects include some rather remarkable women, such as Abigail Minis, a Jewish rancher and innkeeper who supplied George Washington’s troops with provisions, and the outspoken Abigail Franks, a founding mother of New York’s Shearith Israel Synagogue.

While Melamed succeeds in bringing together a colorful mix of early American Jewish characters, her brief descriptions of their lives are somewhat lacking in complexity. Reading this book, you might assume that all early American Jews were financially successful, devoted to the cause of American independence, and staunchly committed to the Jewish community. Missing from her narrative are their struggles, insecurities, and doubts. Melamed writes a history of mythical heroes—Jewish versions of the George Washington who could not tell a lie.

Bingham’s Mordecai takes a different approach. Instead of sketching the lives of many early American Jews, Bingham traces the adventures of one illustrious Jewish family, the Mordecais, through three generations from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. What Bingham loses in breadth she easily makes up with the depth and complexity of her narrative. The Mordecai clan—which includes a large number of extraordinary women—constantly struggled with their Jewish, American and gender identities. While some of the Mordecais were staunchly committed to their Jewish heritage, others converted and became devoted Christians. Many of the Mordecai women tried to live up to the ideal of “enlightened domesticity.” Others directly challenged the conventions of marriage. (Rachel Mordecai, an accomplished school headmistress, easily gave up her career for a marriage and domestic life that conformed to the newest scientific theories.) And while the Mordecais were firm believers in American independence during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War disrupted their trust in the United States. As middleclass, white Southerners in America, the majority of the Mordecais were defenders of slavery and the Confederacy. If Bingham’s Mordecais seem far more flawed than Melamed’s faultless Jewish Americans, they also seem far more human.

The traditional narratives of American history tend to place early Americans on a pedestal. It is only in recent years that the more distasteful qualities of the American “founding fathers” (the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, for instance) have become common knowledge. Melamed gives us the Jewish equivalent of this early American mythology. In a society in which founding mothers are often forgotten, Melamed should be credited with including women in this pantheon. But it is Bingham’s book that is not afraid to dig a little deeper, to tell a history that feels far less perfect, and far more real.

Rachel Kranson is working on her Ph.D. in American Jewish History at New York University