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July 04, 2003 - Image 151

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-07-04

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

The famous Liberty
Bell was brought to
America on the ship
"Myrtilla," owned
by David Franks
and Nathan Levy of
Phildelphia; it was
originally ordered
for use at the
Pennsylvania
statehouse, before
becoming a symbol
of America's freedom
from England

e

Historian traces the lives of three generations
ofa prominent Southern Jewish fiimily.

SANDEE BRAWARSKY
Special to the Jewish News

eorge Washington was
president when, in 1796,
Jacob Mordecai penned
an unusual document to his
children and their future chil-
dren, a covenant guiding their
intellectual growth, family
unity; integrity, hard work and
efforts to build a better world.
His long letter underscored
their chosenness, as Jews and as
Mordecais, a large American
Jewish family in the South, with
roots in New York and
Philadelphia.
The story of three generations
of the Mordecais, from Colonial
days to the late 19th century, is
chronicled in Mordecai: An
.Early American Family by Emily
Bingham (Hill and Wang; $26).
The book is remarkable in its
textured description of this fam-
ily and its American journey.
Family members were prolific
letter writers who left a trail of
documents from which the
author was able to piece togeth-
er their story in a compelling
way. Bingham provides an
unusual view of the process of
assimilation a century before the
large waves of Jewish immi-
grants arrived in America.
An independent scholar
who lives in Louisville and •
teaches at the University of
Louisville, Bingham began this
project more than a decade
ago, while a student at the
University of North Carolina.
"I sort of fell in love with the
whole family," she said.
She pronounces the family
name "Mor-di-key," based on
phonetic expressions she found
of their pronunciation, not the
traditional way the Hebrew
name is pronounced.
Moses Mordecai, who was
born in Germany, came to
America as a convict in 1758,

0

communities."
Other Colonial personalities discussed by Malamed
include Haym Salomon, who helped finance the American
Revolution; Dr. John de Sequeyra, who pioneered treat-
ment of the mentally ill; and Uriah Phillips Levy, who
saved Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.
"My quest to learn about Colonial Jewish history came
out of an interest in decorative arts," Malamed explains. "I
became fascinated with furniture and portraits and what
they represented in showing that time period."
Malamed, a Californian who majored in English and
speech at the University of California, has been researching
Jewish Colonial history since taking a cross-country trip
with her husband, Kenneth, some 35 years ago. She had
never traveled outside California before then and became
very impressed with historic sites, especially Colonial
Williamsburg.
Inspired to visit museums, centers of historical societies,
synagogues and homes of the descendants of Jewish
Colonial families, her documents mounted. Along the way,
she took pictures and collected antiques. The images have
come to supplement her lectures and text.
"I come from a long line of people involved in
Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, and religion is a very
important part of my life," says Malamed, who originally
intended her book for young people preparing for b'nai
mitzvah and confirmations. "Every time I found an object
and looked into the life of the person who owned it, the
object came alive."
A research stop at the Smithsonian served as the turning
point in her professional life. A tutor while raising her
daughter and son, she later became acquainted with a
Smithsonian curator who recommended her as an impor-
tant resource for the developing Skirball Museum in Los
Angeles.
After being asked to design programs for the Skirball, she
used that material as the foundation for lectures delivered
around the country.
Malamed actually lives Jewish Colonial history every day.
Her home is part of a mini-Colonial plantation of four
buildings designed by Malamed and her husband, who left

FOUNDING FATHERS/MOTHERS on page 56

and spent several years as an
indentured servant, and
when he completed his sen-
tence he became a peddler.
While in his 50s, he mar-
ried a teenager named
Elizabeth Whitlock who
embraced his religion,
changed her name to Esther x I
and became his wife. There
were no rabbis in America
at the time to conduct a
formal conversion, and their ;
*.t
union wasn't recognized by
many in the Jewish commu-
nity. In fact, when she died,
she was denied burial in the
Jewish cemetery.
Bingham picks up the fami-
ly history with Jacob
Mordecai, son of Moses and
Esther, who married Judith
Myers in 1784 and soon after
moved to the South and wan-
dered a bit before settling in
the town of Warrenton, N.C.,
where they were the first Jews.
Jacob set up a store, and he
and wife lived in the patriotic,
confident spirit of the new
nation, espousing its ideals.
Tragically, Judith died after
giving birth to their sixth
child. After his wife's death,
Jacob issued his covenant,
which Bingham describes as a
"road map to virtue."
In Warrenton,. they under-
stood their role as outsiders —
their difference was
announced in their name—
but they felt no less American,
always striving hard to prove
themselves to one another and
to the wider world.
They were not unobservant
Jews, but were haphazard in
their own way. Around Passover
time, there are mentions in, the
letters of "commemorative
crackers," or matzah.
After Judith's death, Jacob
married her younger sister
Rebecca, and they had seven
JEWISH IDENTITY on page 57

Top to bottom:

An, 1826 portrait ofjgcob
Mordecai (1762-1838), whose
life reflected the patriotic,
confident spirit of the new
nation, espousing-its ideals.

The 12th and next-to-yaungat-
offacob Mordecais children,
Emma Mordecai (1812-1966),
published writings on judaion in
the decades before the Civil War

i7h

7/ 4
2003

55

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