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Subversive Jews and American Culture

Notes on the Leonard Milberg collection of early American Judaica, currently at Princeton in the impressive ‘By Dawn’s Early Light’ exhibit

Jonathan D. Sarna
February 18, 2016
Gift of John J. and Celia Mack, Maurice and Rose Turner, Justin G. and Gertrude Turner, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Detail from Solomon Nunes Carvalho, 1815–1897, Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes, 1865. Gift of John J. and Celia Mack, Maurice and Rose Turner, Justin G. and Gertrude Turner, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Gift of John J. and Celia Mack, Maurice and Rose Turner, Justin G. and Gertrude Turner, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Detail from Solomon Nunes Carvalho, 1815–1897, Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes, 1865. Gift of John J. and Celia Mack, Maurice and Rose Turner, Justin G. and Gertrude Turner, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.

Leonard Milberg’s collection of early American Judaica highlights American Jewish contributions to culture of every sort: prose, poetry, drama, music, art, science, medicine, journalism, publishing, pedagogy, religion, and more. The collection encourages a shift away from the all-too-prevalent focus upon the “image of the Jew”—meaning the study of the Jew as object—and underscores the agency of Jews, their role as creators and shapers of the nascent national culture. Much of the impressive collection is currently on view through June at the Princeton University Art Museum, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Considering that as late as 1840 Jews formed less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the national population—about 15,000 in all—and that they would not reach even 1 percent of the population before the end of the century, the extent of Jews’ cultural creativity in the ante-Bellum period seems astonishing. The quantity of the material, however, is no indicator of its quality. As the pioneering American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus observed years ago in writing about the early national period, “Jews…do not stand out as belletrists, as poets, historians, great journalists, technologists, inventors, scientists.” Instead, he described them as being “culturally aware and productive.”

Moving beyond Marcus, it seems to me that where Jews did impact upon early American culture is where they cast themselves as critics, subversives and dissenters. As non-Christians, Jews at that time in the United States, however white and wealthy they may have been, were by their very existence cultural outsiders and religious non-conformists. If, following the Oxford English Dictionary, to be culturally subversive means to challenge and undermine “a conventional idea, form, genre, etc., especially by using or presenting it in a new or unorthodox way,” then Jews of that time were disproportionately subversive. Indeed, some of the most important works in the Milberg collection reflect precisely that kind of oppositional stance.

The best known Jews of the era dissented from the mainstream in their persons, by being Jews, and in their writings, by setting themselves apart from those with whom they disagreed, but still observed strict limits. People like the journalist-politician-playwrights Mordecai Noah (1785-1851) and Isaac Harby (1788-1828), and the journalist-religious-and-communal-leaders, Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), and Isaac M. Wise (1819-1900), all of them well-represented in “By Dawn’s Early Light,” were careful not unduly to shock or outrage non-Jewish readers for fear of being marginalized. Noah, for example, was known for never failing “to resent the least aggression on the character of his people.” Nevertheless, he defended a Charleston “blue law,” forbidding the sale and exposure for sale of goods on Sunday, as “a mere local or police regulation, which should be carried into effect by all religious denominations.” “Respect to the laws of the land we live in,” he reminded his fellow Jews, “is the first duty of good citizens of all denominations.” Isaac Leeser similarly reassured Christians in his early work, The Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights (1841), that “we wish not to interfere with you, we wish not…to unsettle your hopes and convictions,” even as he understood that in presenting Jewish “claims” he was distancing himself from many of his neighbors. Later, in discussing the messiah in one of his discourses, he expressed a willingness “to attack, to a certain extent, the opinions of the majority of the people among whom we live,” but did so only after a prolonged apologia and with the utmost of caution.

Instead of focusing on these better known interlocutors, here I want to focus on culturally creative Jews of this era who dissented more openly from the mainstream—and in a few cases paid a price. These “subversive Jews” never became household names, even in American Jewish historical circles, and some, until rescued by this exhibit, have been almost totally forgotten. Their bold challenges to the norms of their time nevertheless pushed boundaries. Freedoms that we enjoy today are in some part due to their audacity and courage.

One of the most subversive early American Jews was a man named Samuel Benjamin Helbert Judah (1799?—1876). Son of the prominent New York Jewish merchant, Benjamin Judah, who was bankrupted in the War of 1812, Samuel, as a young man, aspired to a literary career. The theater, controversial as it was in many Evangelical circles, served as a point of entry for him. During the early nineteenth century, as American theater democratized, many aspiring writers challenged the cultural hegemony of the elite and took on the daunting challenge of redefining American identity by writing for the theater. Besides Judah, Jewish playwrights of the time (all of them featured in this exhibit) include Mordecai Noah, Isaac Harby, Jonas B. Phillips, Samuel Yates Levy, and Herman M. Moos. Judah wrote several plays, including The Mountain Torrent (1820), which, he reported, was greeted “with universal applause.” He also authored Odofried, the Outcast A Dramatic Poem (1822), which drew upon Milton and old German legends, but included lines (“I was born an outcast”) that take on additional layers of meaning when one recalls that the author, as a Jew, was himself an outsider. Odofried’s soliloquy echoed the complaint of many a Jew facing persecution in a Christian world:

No crime hath ever stained my soul, and of blood
This hand is innocent; yet still hath the
Eternal followed my footsteps ever,
With a blighting, deadly, and unsated curse,
From morn to morn—night to night—day to day—

Odofried was too faulty and grim to win success. The aged John Adams, who had the poem read to him, pronounced it “horrible.” He softened the blow by assuring Judah that it nevertheless contained “marks of genius and talents, which in so young a man, if hereafter carefully cultivated and applied to more proper subjects, may produce something agreeable and useful.” Thomas Jefferson begged off reading the work altogether. Most critics were no more encouraging. The Port Folio, in Philadelphia, characterized the poem’s author as “entirely deficient in all the essentials of his art,” and, revealingly, confused Judah with the better-known Jewish writer of that time, Mordecai Noah.

It was, however, Judah’s pseudonymous work, Gotham and the Gothamites: A Medley (1823) that definitively marked him as a subversive writer. Described in the nineteenth century as “almost without a parallel in the history of defamatory literature,” the volume followed the form of Gulian C. Verplanck’s gentle political satire, The Bucktail Bards, but its language was far more inflammatory and vituperative. Its attacks upon the misdeeds and hypocrisies of over 100 easily identifiable members of New York’s elite –“public officials, politicians, merchant of the highest integrity, eminent lawyers, editors, clergymen, booksellers and publishers, literary men, professors in colleges, actors, theatrical managers, prominent military men, scholars and artists”—were in many cases personal and offensive.

For example, Gotham and the Gothamites described Judah’s nemesis, Mordecai M. Noah, thinly disguised as “N**h” in the book (“descended of Mordecai of old who hanged Haman”) as a “poor, luckless wight…doomed from out thy brainless head to spin forth libels on grammar and learning.” He revealed that N**h had been seen with an unnamed “goddess” on Duane [“D***e”] Street, home of an infamous tavern. The “goddess,” having been made “tipsy with bad gin,” according to Judah, “mistook N**h for a wise man, for “she saw double—that is gave him credit for twice the sense he possesses.”

In the case of a minor author named George Houston [“H*****n”], known for attacking Christianity and supporting freethought, Gotham and the Gothamites reminded readers of the “daring infidel’s” imprisonment in England (“the Newgate halter hath scarcely left his neck”) and piously opined that “he who mocks, however faulty, the faith he hath quitted, should be held a second Cain, hated and despised.” Rhyming couplets that simultaneously entertained and appalled readers, betraying Judah’s venom and the modesty of his poetic gifts, lashed out at Houston directly:

Thou has a heart that honor never braced,
A head of stone, where sense doth run to waste. …
So great a knave art thou, so perfect true,
The world hath not a rogue to rival you. …

Gotham and the Gothamites coupled these subversive attacks on individuals with broader and more commonplace sallies against the general state of public morality in the “proud city” of New York. Judah portrayed Gotham’s “merchant nobles” as “weak and willing slaves to gold and wild and boundless luxury.” He railed against prostitution, “the serpent Lust unblushing doth his vot’ries call.” He sighed over what he saw as a widespread decline in female modesty (“at one time, a full dress was such as to cover the fair wearer from almost the closest inspection, scarce showing the chin or ancle [sic]—now, a full dress is no dress at all.”) He critiqued missionaries (“Reforming saints, look that your own heart be true, Ere you Christianize the Indian, or convert the Jew”), as well as ministers, doctors and scholars. Finally, spent of his anger, he admitted, “I am emptied of all hatred now. … my task is done.”

Actually, his task was not done at all, for William L. Stone, the editor of the Commercial Advertiser and one of those skewered in the book (“a Stone by name, and a Stone by nature…particularly his brains, which are rather of a stony substance”) identified Judah as the author of Gotham and the Gothamites, and had him and his publisher indicted for libel by the New York Grand Jury. District Attorney Hugh Maxwell charged that Judah “seemed to be actuated by a general malice against all classes of individuals, with a view of filling his pockets, and gratifying his perverse and malicious disposition. The private concerns of individuals,” he complained to the court, “have been spread before the public, and wanton attacks made upon the most distinguished and respectable citizens.” Found guilty, Judah was fined a whopping $400 plus costs (about $8,000 in today’s money). When unable to pay, he spent 33 days languishing in prison until pardoned by the governor out of concern for his health.

Jacob Rader Marcus theorized that Judah was “embittered by lack of recognition as a dramatist, resentful of the success of others, totally unable to gauge his own work, deficient of good common sense, pathetically starved for attention, frustrated, conceited, and determined that people would yet pay heed to him.” Be this as it may, his work can be understood as that of a badly behaved, rebellious adolescent: it laid bare some of the hypocrisies of its time, and cut some of New York City’s most prominent cultural figures down to size. Though it bespoke Judah’s status as an outsider, it is significant that antisemitism seems to have played no public role in his prosecution; surviving newspaper accounts failed to mention his religion at all. Jews did, nevertheless, pay special attention to the case, for Judah and his family were prominent members of Congregation Shearith Israel. Isaac Gomez Jr., scion of one of the oldest and most distinguished Sephardic Jewish families in New York City (Stephen Birmingham once memorably dubbed them “the grandees”), went so far as to produce a memorandum of the trial which he preserved among his papers. His goal in doing so, he wrote, was to “to guard my children from permitting themselves from evilspeaking or evildoing as the consequences are serious.”

Gomez was himself a contributor to early American culture, but his outward public stance was completely the opposite of Judah’s. His Selections of a Father for the Use of His Children. In Prose and Verse (1820), an anthology “calculated to promote a taste for reading and to improve the mind in useful learning,” was the very model of propriety and, unlike Judah’s Odofried, was highly praised by John Adams (“deserve[s] a place in every family, there is not an impure or mean thought in the whole Book.”) Where Judah, like many young native-born writers of that time, pursued the goal of creating a new American literature, Gomez championed the classics. “As a young country,” he righteously declared in his preface, “we must not flatter ourselves with excelling in all the departments of literature; and, therefore, we must establish a true taste upon a firm foundation, we must select from the most approved authors, and thus gradually lead to perfection of our own.”

In private, however, Gomez was much more critical—at least of the religious world that surrounded him. His unpublished manuscript, “God is One and His Name One: Quotations from Scripture etc. to Prove God to be One And the Truth of the Jewish Faith,” lovingly handwritten for the benefit of his only son, Moses Emanuel (1804-1878), was explicitly designed to buttress the views of a small Jewish minority seeking to maintain its distinctive religious identity amid a sea of Protestants eager to convert them. Inwardly and within the protective bosom of his own family, Gomez revealed his true feelings about the merits of his neighbors’ beliefs. His purpose, he disclosed in his preface, was nothing less than “to shew, and to know that we are the chosen people of God … as well as that God is one without addition or subtraction … that there never was nor never will be but One God.” This was, of course, an utterly subversive idea in the face of overwhelming Christian trinitarianism, and Gomez, whose ancestors had been Crypto-Jews in Portugal, explicitly warned his son to keep the critique to himself: not “to be a religious disputant” and not to share the volume with anyone else, “never part with it, either by lending or otherwise.” At the same time, the whole point of producing the handwritten book was to arm his son with the necessary texts and arguments for “when it becomes necessary for you to defend your religion.” Gomez made clear that he “put no credence” in the New Testament, which he described as replete with “many alterations, false quotations and misrepresentations.” Nor did he respect Christianity as a whole, having determined that it “has grown out of Heathenism.” His conclusion after more than 460 pages of proof texts, was certainly not surprising for a Jew whose ancestors had been persecuted by the Holy Inquisition, but was nevertheless utterly countercultural in the 1820s world of New York City. Gomez firmly insisted that Judaism was right and Christianity wrong. “The idea of there being more Gods than One, either three in one or three distinct characters…,” he whispered to his son, “is inconsistent with reason or common sense.”


Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862), who as a Jew faced extraordinary prejudice during his naval career and insisted upon fighting back was very much, in his own eyes, a lonely hero of this sort. Born in Philadelphia, a second cousin to Mordecai Noah, he ran away to sea at the age of ten, joined the U.S. Navy at the age of twenty to fight in the War of 1812, was captured by the British, received an independent naval command at thirty, and became a captain, the highest naval grade (equivalent to commodore), in 1844. Honor meant a great deal to him. “My parents were Israelites. … ,” he explained to a court of inquiry in 1857. “I was forced to encounter a large share of the prejudice and hostility by which, for so many ages, the Jew has been pursued.” He also was resented as an interloper, for rising through the ranks from the position of sailing master rather than entering the Navy as a midshipman, as most officers did. On both grounds, many in the Navy considered him a subversive threat to tradition and order, and attempted to oust him. Insulted and kicked in 1816 by a fellow officer, Lt. William Potter, who called him “a damned Jew,” Levy faced him down in a duel. When Potter refused to settle the quarrel amicably and took aim, Levy shot him dead. Subsequently, he was court martialed on six different occasions between 1816 and 1842, in part, as Mordecai Noah privately admitted to Navy Secretary George Bancroft in 1846, because he was “rough and uneducated [and] no favorite with many of the officers,” and in part, as Noah also apprehended, because of “religious prejudices operating to his disadvantage.” When Levy was unceremoniously cashiered out of the Navy, in 1855, at the age of 63, he hired excellent lawyers, fought back (“My case, he claimed, “is the case of every Israelite in the Union“), and, in 1858, won reinstatement.

Over the course of his career, Levy made a fortune in real estate, thanks to his timely purchases of property in Greenwich Village. By 1855, he was one of the two richest Jews in the city, reputedly worth some $12.5 million in today’s money. This allowed him to devote funds to the two causes that became closest to his heart: the campaign against corporal punishment (flogging) in the Navy, and the campaign to honor Thomas Jefferson, whom he considered “an inspiration to millions of Americans,” particularly since he “did much to mould our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.”

Levy fancied himself “Father of the [1850] law for the abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States,” which is an exaggeration, but his public advocacy for the cause, as well as the personal example he set by substituting humiliating punishments for painful ones on board his own ship, made an impact. It also furthered his unpopularity among Naval officers, who overwhelmingly deemed the cat-o-nine tails an essential means of enforcing military discipline.

As for Levy’s campaign to honor Thomas Jefferson, it resulted in three cultural monuments that survive to this day. In 1832, six years following Jefferson’s death, he commissioned the noted French sculptor Pierre-Jean David d’Angers to create a bronze statue in Jefferson’s memory. He personally oversaw the making of the 7.5 foot statue, today celebrated by art historians for breaking with neoclassicism and focusing upon “the practical application and dissemination of enlightenment principles within the public sphere of political action.” He then paid to have it transported across the ocean, and presented it to Congress, in 1834, as a gift to “my fellow citizens of the United States.” The statue stands today in the Capitol Rotunda, and is remembered as the first full-length portrait statue placed in the U.S. Capitol Building and the only one donated by a private citizen. That same year, Levy presented the painted plaster model of the statue to “the people of New York”; today it adorns the Council Chamber in City Hall. Finally, also in 1834, he purchased Monticello, Jefferson’s by then pillaged and dilapidated Virginia estate, which he proceeded to protect and preserve, believing as he did that “the homes of great men should be protected and preserved as monuments to their glory.” Monticello remained in the Levy family, maintained by Uriah’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, until it was sold to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923.


Uriah Phillips Levy, like the others whom we have so far considered here, belonged to a synagogue and participated in Jewish life. “Dawn’s Early Life,” however, also embraces Jews who separated themselves from the Jewish community. Such Jews, on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes proved to be the most subversive Jews of all. One case, considered a “great sensation” in its time, concerned a promising young British-born Jewish chemist in New York with the unusual name of Charles Cleomenes Coleman Cohen (1807-1834). Well educated as a Jew in England and a onetime student of the pioneering British scientist Michael Faraday, Cohen abandoned his Jewish faith while still in England and, in New York, publicly identified as an atheist. “I can attach no idea to the word God,” he proclaimed in the radical Free Enquirer, “and cannot consequently believe in him.” The very day those irreverent words appeared in print, Saturday, February 16, 1834, an explosion in his laboratory blew Cohen to bits. This naturally sparked headlines—some viewed his death as Divine punishment—and in the shadow of Abner Kneeland’s arrest and conviction for blasphemy in Boston, also stimulated a lively debate concerning whether Cohen, had he lived, would likewise have been hauled into court for his subversive writings. Fascinatingly, a newspaper sympathetic to Cohen noted that there were in the United States some half a dozen other Jews—“most intelligent men. . . well-educated in the Jewish faith”—who had become “professed and fearless Atheists.” Mordecai Noah’s advice, reflecting the fear of subversives that characterized his later life, was “let them be silent.”

Ernestine Rose (1810-1892), the best known Jewish atheist and women’s rights leader of her day, would soon spurn that advice. Born in Poland, where her father was a rabbi, she refused a marriage arranged by her father, and after stints in France and Holland, moved to England in 1830, where she fell under the spell of the socialist reformer, Robert Owen, and married a fellow Owenite in a civil ceremony. Arriving in New York in 1836 accompanied by her husband, she quickly won success on the speaking circuit and became a celebrated women’s rights and human rights advocate as well as a proponent of radical freethought. She described herself as “but a daughter of poor, crushed Poland, and the down-trodden and persecuted people called the Jews, ‘a child of Israel,’” when she pleaded for the “equal rights of her sex,” in 1852 in an address to the Third National Woman’s Rights Convention. A year later, addressing her “sisters” at a debate between supporters of the Bible and infidels, she created an uproar when she asked “do you wish to be free? Then you must trample the Bible, the church, and the priests under your feet.” To her mind, freedom for slaves, women and Jews were intertwined: “I go for emancipation of all kinds,” she explained, “white and black, man and woman. … I go for the recognition of human rights, without distinction of sect, party, sex or color.” Her motto, which she recommended to social reformers everywhere, was “Agitate! Agitate!”

Ernestine Rose was both conscious and proud of her subversive stance. “I know but too well what it is to go against the long-cherished and time-honored prejudices and superstitions,” she admitted in an 1853 speech. “It is no pleasant task to go against the current, but there is a sense of duty that balances all unpleasantness.” Perhaps because she was so unorthodox in advocating full equality for women, opposing slavery, and defending atheism, the Jewish community of her day completely ignored her. Not one mention of her name has so far turned up in any pre-Civil War Jewish newspaper. Years later, in 1890, when her name was brought to the attention of the editor of the American Israelite, he confessed with some surprise that “we never heard of Mrs. Rose before.” Nevertheless, Rose continued to identify herself with the Jewish people, and during the Civil War she vigorously and repeatedly defended them against attacks by Horace Seaver editor of the freethought weekly, The Boston Investigator.

Ernestine Rose was far from being a “typical” American Jew of her time. Samuel B.H. Judah, Isaac Gomez, Solomon Henry Jackson, Uriah P. Levy, and the other subversive Jews who, we have seen, violated the cultural conventions of their day were far from typical either. All alike, pushed the bounds of propriety—speaking out against hypocrisy, prejudice, and against the social and religious norms of their time. Even if ignored or persecuted by those around them, we know, in retrospect, that these men and women broadened and enlivened American culture. Some paid a heavy price for doing so.

The bulk of Jews in antebellum America, even if they differed from the mainstream in matters of religion, were, of course, far from subversive. They kept their heads down and their mouths shut. Seeking to win their neighbors’ respect, they strove mightily to behave well. But they too paid a price. Their names go unrecorded in the annals of American Jewish culture and they left nothing for Leonard Milberg to collect. The moral, proclaimed by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich with respect to women, is no less true with respect to Jews: the well-behaved ones seldom made history.


Excerpted from By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War; essays by thirteen contributing scholars and interpretive notes published on the occasion of the loan exhibition sponsored by Leonard L. Milberg, Princeton class of 1953, editor, Adam D. Mendelsohn. Copyright © Princeton University Library 2016.

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, where he directs the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He is the author of, among other titles, American Judaism: A History and When General Grant Expelled the Jews.

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, where he directs the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He is the author of, among other titles,American Judaism: A History andWhen General Grant Expelled the Jews.