Published by Rawdon, Clark & Co., Albany, & Rawdon, Wright & Co., New York, 1829.
Detail, map of the County of Erie, by David H. Burr.Published by Rawdon, Clark & Co., Albany, & Rawdon, Wright & Co., New York, 1829.
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Decades before the rise of Zionism, 19th-century American playwright and diplomat Mordecai Manuel Noah envisioned a refuge for European Jews—on an island near Buffalo

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 05, 2018
Published by Rawdon, Clark & Co., Albany, & Rawdon, Wright & Co., New York, 1829.
Detail, map of the County of Erie, by David H. Burr.Published by Rawdon, Clark & Co., Albany, & Rawdon, Wright & Co., New York, 1829.

Were we, for argument’s sake, to construct a profile of a representative American Jew, a swirl of characteristics comes to mind, but swashbuckling, I suspect, is not among them.

To find an American Jew who fits the bill, we have to turn to the 19th century and to Mordecai Manuel Noah. Larger than life, he was at one point or another a politician and a playwright, a man about town, a journalist, and a diplomat in Tunis, where he jousted with pirates. He was also the force behind a harebrained scheme to resettle the Jews of the world on an island outside of Buffalo, New York.

Once a household name, Major Noah, as he liked to call himself even though his military title was ornamental rather than earned, has been the subject of a number of compelling accounts over the years, from Isaac Goldberg’s 1938 study Major Noah: American-Jewish Pioneer, to Jonathan Sarna’s 1981 Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah, and on to Ben Katchor’s fanciful 1999 graphic novel, The Jew of New York.

Fodder for the novelist and the historian, the twists and turns of Noah’s career constitute a whopping good yarn, the kind you couldn’t possibly but might want to make up. His life, which spanned the years 1785-1851, also alerts us to the ways in which the Jews benefited from America’s fluidity, highlighting the ease with which they crossed over from one realm to another.

A Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, New York City’s political machine, and a charter member, a “truly good fellow,” of the Bread and Cheese, a local bachelor’s club where, it was said, he “loved a turtle dinner and a glass of wine,” Noah was also known as the “King and High Priest of the Jews,” for having relished the opportunity to speak publicly on their behalf whenever the occasion arose.

Clearly a man of parts and of diverse interests, Noah held a very high opinion of himself, so much so that one of his biographers observed that he was “not one to hide his light under a bushel.” His talent for self-promotion was nonpareil; his imagination outsized. Those qualities, along with a keen sense of the dramatic, were put to good use when, in 1825, he announced a plan to secure a place of refuge for the hapless Jews of Europe: Ararat, he called it, invoking the name of the biblical site where Noah’s Ark had come to rest.

John Wood Dodge’s portrait of Mordecai Manuel Noah, 1834. (Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.)

John Wood Dodge’s portrait of Mordecai Manuel Noah, 1834. (Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Setting his sights on Grand Island, a hunting and fishing ground rich in timber nestled in the Niagara River, Noah sought in one fell swoop to improve the condition of his European coreligionists and, concomitantly, to develop the island’s abundant natural resources. The humanitarian and the economic components of his colonization plan went hand in hand, prompting the Christian Intelligencer to liken its creator to a latter-day Moses or Joshua who would “lead his people through the wilderness to their Canaan in America, flowing with milk and honey”—and considerable water power.

In many respects, Noah’s restoration scheme was not as farfetched as it may seem at first blush. As Sarna has pointed out, it was of a piece with other 19th-century colonization attempts, among them the efforts of the American Colonization Society to resettle free African-Americans in Liberia. Reformers throughout the Western world, he explains, “came to view colonies—especially, but not exclusively, American frontier colonies—as the best solution to the problems posed by minority, deviant, and oppressed groups.”

Considerable fanfare—booming cannons, a 24-gun salute, the glorious sounds of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus—attended Ararat’s public launch. Noah, kitted out in a costume inspired by Richard III—a crimson silk robe trimmed in ermine, festooned with an oversized gold medal—presided over the elaborate proceedings, whose centerpiece was an exceedingly wordy “Proclamation to the Jews.”

Adopting the mantle of “Governor and Judge of Israel,” Noah called on the Jews of the world to gather together “under the protection of the American Constitution,” where after a lapse of 2,000 years, they would re-establish a “Hebrew government.” Quick to point out that Ararat was no substitute for Zion, but rather a “temporary and provisionary” place of refuge, an “asylum,” he also made it clear in his address, as well as in subsequent speeches, that the Grand Island settlement was no “mere colonization,” but an exercise in amelioration, or what we today might call social engineering. The big idea was to provide the Jews with a “period of regeneration,” during which they would modernize themselves as well as deepen their familiarity with “liberal principles.”

For all the verbiage and hoopla, nothing came of Ararat except a 300-pound cornerstone and much public ridicule. No one took the newly fashioned Governor and Judge of Israel up on his kind offer to relocate to an island outside Buffalo. Some contemporary accounts snidely insinuated that sinister forces made sure the scheme never got off the ground: The Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, for its part, claimed that the European “stock exchange would be thrown into a panic upon finding itself suddenly threatened by the loss of so many people and so much capital.”

But that wasn’t the reason why Ararat was left “high, dry and empty.” It failed to take hold because the entire scheme, from start to finish, veered between the ill-conceived and the preposterous. Long on drama and short on details—Noah, it was said, had “little time for such practicalities as geography”—the venture stretched the limits of feasibility. That it lay in the hands of a man who bore a much closer resemblance to “Quixote and Sancho” than to a king or even a judge of Israel sealed its doom.

While Noah would go on to live down—and move past—the Ararat episode, there’s a delicious little footnote to this story that bears repeating. Several weeks after Ararat made its public debut, a flotilla of boats sailed from Buffalo to New York in celebration of the grand opening of the Erie Canal. A vessel named Noah’s Ark, helmed by none other than Mordecai Manuel Noah and inhabited by “all manner of animals and creeping things,” was slated to be among them. But fate had other plans, crippling Noah’s Ark as it came through one of the canal’s locks.

Once again, Major Noah had missed the boat.


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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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