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American Purim

Mordecai Manuel Noah sharpens the question raised by the biblical Mordechai: Can there be viable Jewish continuity in the diaspora?

Stuart Halpern
February 25, 2020
The Triumph of Mordecai, by Pieter Lastman, 1624
The Triumph of Mordecai, by Pieter Lastman, 1624
The Triumph of Mordecai, by Pieter Lastman, 1624
The Triumph of Mordecai, by Pieter Lastman, 1624

And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a rob of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad. (Esther 8:15)

Bible, square and compass, borne by a master mason, the Judge of Israel in black, wearing the judicial robes of crimson silk, trimmed with ermine, and a richly embossed gold medal suspended from the neck. The procession enters the church… (“Ceremonies at the laying of the corner stone of the city of Ararat on September 2, 1825,” Niles’ Register, Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 26, 1831)

The bear and the Indians were late. Mordecai Manuel Noah, the Philadelphia-born prominent playwright, journalist, editor, sheriff, lawyer and diplomat (having briefly served as consul at Tunis, one of the Barbary States in North Africa), had chartered a small boat from Grand Island in upstate New York to participate in the flotilla celebrating the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The boat, which he named Noah’s Ark, contained, beyond a bear and Native Americans, two eagles, two fawns, and assorted fish, birds and other animals. The five-ton ship never reached its intended destination of New York City, however, having been damaged attempting to navigate one of the canal’s locks, and had to turn back.

Noah’s failed Ark encapsulated his larger project, definitively detailed by historian Jonathan Sarna, which was attempting to establish a Jewish homeland on Grand Island itself (Noah’s maternal grandfather was the revolutionary war veteran Jonas Phillips, who in 1787 had addressed the Constitutional Convention to advocate for religious liberty). His intention was to improve the conditions of the Jews of the world by creating a haven for them, which, through their presence on the island, would develop the island’s natural resources for the benefit of all Americans. Additionally, a substantive presence on the island would serve as a bulwark against potential British aggression. Having spent many years advocating, in high-profile public settings and various media outlets (well-beyond the small American Jewish community of his time) for the creation of a state for his brethren in America, Noah believed the “chosen country” for the Chosen People was the United States, that is, at least until the Jews could return to their ancient homeland in Israel. To that end, he wrote to all three living ex-Presidents for their thoughts on Jewish American rights, and indeed, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all wrote back affirming the equality of the Jews of America before the law. Adams response included his telling the ambitious Noah

I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites indeed as well disciplin’d as a French army—& marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it—For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.

As historian Jenna Weissman Joselit has noted, the economic and humanitarian components of Noah’s plan to purchase the island from New York State, which had bought it from the Seneca Nation, went hand in hand, inspiring the Christian Intelligencer to liken Noah 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.” Noah’s request to acquire the island was considered by the state assembly in 1820, and the Albany Daily Advertiser’s coverage of the story stated that the plan would allow for the Jews to “have their Jerusalem” and “erect their temple” in peace and prosperity on Grand Island. The plan, alas, was rejected as lawmakers didn’t want to undervalue the land in advance of the completion of the Canal and were hesitant to create a settlement where Jews dwelled apart from their Christian neighbors.

Noah was undaunted, and in 1824 however, Samuel Leggett, a wealthy friend of Noah’s, purchased 2,000 acres for $16,985 (at the time an enormous amount). Newspapers announced that “the foundation stone” of a city to be called Ararat, named for the mountain range upon which the biblical Noah’s ark rested after the flood (Genesis 8:4), would be laid in close to the time of the canal’s official opening (Noah had originally considered naming the site “New Jerusalem”). On September 2, 1825, an elaborate ceremony was planned for Leggett’s land on Grand Island and a crowd of locals and a delegation of Indians gathered in anticipation. However, not enough boats could be gathered to bring to the island all those who desired to witness the ceremony, and so the proceedings were quickly shifted to nearby Buffalo’s only building large enough to house the day’s celebration—St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Thus, soldiers, masons, political leaders, military men, clergy, and musicians proceeded to the church, with Noah, the self-proclaimed “Judge of Israel,” at the helm, his ornate costume borrowed from a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Cannons were fired, and a three-hundred-pound sandstone block, upon which was engraved the first verse of the Shema, was put on St. Paul’s communion table, along with wine, oil, and corn. Noah, in his speech, called upon Jews to settle in this

“land of milk and honey” [Ex. 3:8] where Israel may repose in peace, under his “vine and fig tree” [Micah 4:4] and where our people may so familiarize themselves, with the science of government, and the lights of learning and civilization, as may qualify them for that great and final restoration to their ancient heritage, which the times so powerfully indicate… Deprived as our people have been for centuries of a right in the soil, they will learn with particular satisfaction, that here they can till the land, reap the harvest, and raise the flocks which are unquestionably their own; and in the full and unmolested enjoyment of their religious rights, and of every civil immunity, together with peace and plenty, they can lift up their voice in gratitude to him, who sustained our fathers in the wilderness and brought us in triumph out of the land of Egypt; who assigned to us the safe keeping of his oracles, who proclaimed us his people, and who has ever walked before us like a “cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night” [Ex. 13:21].

In announcing the “re-establish[ment of] the Government of the Jewish Nation…under the auspices and protection of the United States of America” Noah noted that this “asylum” would be “temporary and provisionary. The Jews never should and never will relinquish the just hope of regaining possession of their ancient heritage, and events in the neighborhood of Palestine indicate an extraordinary change of affairs.”

But in the meantime, there would be Ararat. Noah, a devout Jew, called upon the major rabbinic figures of Europe to lead their flocks to the island and issued a series of rulings, including granting “equal rights of privileges” to the “black Jews of India and Africa” as well as to nonrabbinic sects, including Samaritans and Karaites, and the “Indians of the American continent…the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.” The speech appeared in newspapers across America, signed by the “Judge of Israel” and his secretary, Abraham B. Seixas, the nephew of Shearith Israel’s first American born religious leader and a mentor of Noah’s, Gershom Mendes Seixas. Noah’s rhetoric, coming fifty years after the birth of the America, purposely hearkened back to the founding principles of that very nation, and he compared the potential of the “Hebrew nation” of Ararat to enhance the American project through agriculture and industry to the efforts of the original pilgrims who first arrived at Plymouth Bay seeking religious freedom.

Alas, the European rabbis did not heed Noah’s call, with one rabbi, Abraham de Cologna, the Chief Rabbi of Paris, charging Noah with “treason against the Divine Majesty” for attempting to restore Jewish sovereignty before the Messianic Era and suggesting Jews “are too much attached to the countries where they dwell, and devoted to the governments under which they enjoy liberty and protection, not to treat as a mere jest the chimerical consulate of a pseudo restorer.” Noah’s Ararat plan, despite the theatrics, never got off the ground, just as Noah’s Ark never made it to its intended destination. Grand Island was sold, relatively cheaply, as timberland in 1833. Noah’s boundless energies shifted in subsequent years to other efforts, but his hope was never lost. In 1837 he spoke of how

The Jewish people must now do something for themselves; they must move onward to the accomplishment of that great event long foretold – long promised – long expected; and when they DO move, that mighty power which has for thousands of years rebuked the proscription and intolerance shown to Jews, by a benign protection of the whole nation, will still cover them with his invincible standard… Once again unfurl the standard of Judah on Mount Zion, the four corners of the earth will give up the chosen people as the sea will give up its dead, at the sound of the last trumpet. Let the cry be heard in Jerusalem, as it was in the day of the Saracen and the lion-hearted Richard of England, and the rags and wretchedness which have for eighteen centuries enveloped the persons of the Jews, crushed as they were by the persecution and injustice, will fall to the earth; … When taking their rank once more among the nations of the earth, with the good wishes and affectionate regards of the great family of mankind, they may by their tolerance, their good faith, their charity and enlarged liberal views, merit what has been said in their behalf by inspired writers, “Blessed are they who bless Israel.”

And so it was, in 1844, at the age of fifty-nine, that Mordecai Manuel Noah, who years earlier had said “if there be any person possessing greater facilities and a more ardent zeal in attempting to restore the Jews to their rights as a sovereign and independent people, to such will I cheerfully surrender the trust,” once again launched a plan for Jewish autonomy, this time with a new destination in mind. In front of packed crowds at the New York Tabernacle, Noah, in his “Discourse on the Restoration of the Jews,” predicted the Ottoman Empire would fade, and the British Empire would assume control of Palestine, thereby setting the stage for a Jewish return to their biblical homeland. Speaking to his predominantly Christian audience, he proclaimed

We have lost all–country, government, kingdom, and power. You have it all – it is yours. I was once ours–it is again to be restored to us. Dismiss, therefore, from your hearts all prejudice which still lurks there against the favoured people of God… and consider their miraculous preservation…. Is it nothing to have had such fathers and founders of their faith as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; such mothers as Sarah and Rebecca, Leah and Rachel; such illustrious women as Miriam and Deborah, Ruth and Esther?… Is it nothing, my friends, to have outlived all the nations of the earth, and to have survived all who sought to ruin and destroy us? Where are those who fought at Marathon, Salamis, and Platea? Where are the generals of Alexander – the mighty myriads of Xerxes? Where are the bones of those which once whitened the plains of Troy? We only hear of them in the pages of history. But if you ask, Where are the descendants of the million of brave souls who fell under the triple walls of Jerusalem? Where are the subjects of David, and Solomon, and the brethren of Jesus? I answer, Here! Here we are – miraculously preserved – the pure and unmixed blood of the Hebrews, having the Law for one light, and God for our Redeemer…. Who can be an infidel when he looks on the Jews, and sees in them, and the Bible yet firmly in their grasp, the consummation of all the Divine promises made to them as a nation? I should think that the very idea, the hope, the prospect, and, above all, the certainty of restoring Israel to his own and promised land, would arouse the whole civilized world to a cordial and happy cooperation. Mankind would spring from the couch of ease and slumber to see the ensign displayed, and would exclaim, “The day has come! The promise is fulfilled!”

Calling upon Americans to “pave the way” for a Jewish restoration of Zion, Noah’s speech received a positive review from none other than the renowned American writer Edgar Allen Poe, who called his thinking “extraordinary… full of novel and cogent thought.” Noah even held a fundraising campaign in 1848 at Shearith Israel, one-hundred years before the birth of the modern State of Israel, stating “It would be the proudest day of my life, if I could be present at laying the corner-stone of the new Temple of Jerusalem.” The next year, in an address at the Hebrew Synagogue in Crosby Street, he envisioned an era in which

…every country on earth will give up its great men among the Jewish people, and a combination of talent, wealth, enterprise, learning, skill, energy, and bravery will be collected in Palestine, with all the lights of science and civilization, and once more elevate those laws which Moses had consecrated to liberty and the republican form of government. Let us commence the great work, and leave its consummation to our great Shepherd and Redeemer.

Despite support from influential leaders, including many Christians, this attempt too made no progress, and Noah passed away roughly two years later, and, following a fittingly elaborate funeral, was buried in Shearith Israel’s Manhattan cemetery. Credited by many, including the late historian Benzion Netanyahu, with anticipating modern Zionism, Noah’s story had a particular impact on Israel Zangwill, the playwright most famous for his The Melting Pot, a work, set on the holiday of Purim, that wrestled with Jewish identity, persecution, and assimilation. Zangwill, in turn, was an early supporter of Theodor Herzl and the Zionist cause, and chaired the 1895 meeting in which Herzl first presented his plan for the Jewish state.

At its essence, Mordecai Manuel Noah’s story, one explicitly connected by Noah himself to the biblical Noah in the naming of both his Ark and Ararat, a timeless American Jewish story if there ever was one, actually recalls a different biblical predecessor, Mordechai in the Book of Esther. As Adam Kirsch notes in his discussion of Esther,

To secular, assimilated Jews, in particular, the Esther story has an uncanny familiarity, like an old nightmare that has never been entirely forgotten. After all, Mordecai and Esther, like American Jews today, live in a cosmopolitan, pluralist society where Jews seem defined less by their religious beliefs than by their ethnic loyalties. Just as it is common for American Jews to have first names drawn from Christian or Greco-Roman sources, so these characters are named after Babylonian deities: Mordecai from Marduk, the chief god of Babylon’s mythology, and Esther from Ishtar, the goddess of love…. In some essential ways, Jewish life in twenty-first-century America may resemble the Persia of twenty-five hundred years ago more closely than the Poland of three hundred years ago.

Mordecai Manuel Noah’s being removed as diplomat to Tunis, as then Secretary of State James Monroe himself wrote in 1815, was due to the perception that Noah’s religion would hinder his functioning in the position. The perceived liability of the Jews to the kingdom of Shushan, despite the positive governmental role Mordechai played in saving the king’s life (2:21-23), serves at the core of Haman’s accusations against the Jews to Ahashverosh. And of course, questions at the nexus of Jewish loyalty and liability have long-plagued America’s Jewish community (Noah was often referred to as “Noah the Jew” and “Shylock” throughout his lifetime). The lesson that Noah learned the hard way, that, in Sarna’s words, “beneath the veneer of American tolerance lay a considerable layer of anti-Jewish prejudice,” despite political involvement and advocacy, has been relearned in subsequent generations. The first Jew to openly confront the challenges and opportunities of American freedom, Mordecai Manuel Noah, like the biblical Mordechai, through his actions, attempted to make the case that Jews could be robed in the clothing of leaders, spokespeople, and guardians of their country – for the benefit of their Jewish brethren, and the benefit of all citizens of the realm. Whether that case was a convincing one, in the eyes of their respective Jewish communities or in the minds of the citizenry of their respective home countries, remains open to debate.

Judah Jeitteles, an Austrian leader of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) who some historians credit with coining the very term “haskalah,” wrote in 1826 in the Hebrew journal Bikkurei Ha’Ittim of the efforts of the American Noah. Echoing the language of Esther 2:5, Jeitteles informed his readers that there was an “ish Yehudi (a Jewish man) who dwelled in the medina (nation) of North America, and his name was Mordecai Manuel Noah.” This Mordecai, who “was sending letters to all the families of the Jews,” was, in Jeitteles’ opinion, a charlatan to be ignored. Drawing explicitly on the Talmudic critique of Mordechai (Megillah 16b), that Mordechai’s leadership was only accepted by most Jews as their leader and not by all the Jews, based on the final verse of Esther stating that Mordechai was “popular with the multitude of his brethren (rov ehav),” Jeitteles wrote that “if this was said about Mordechai in those days, how much more so in our days, with regards to Mordechai who dwells in America who is prophesying dreams and nothingness…it should be said that he is not accepted by all his brethren, nor most of his brethren, nor few of his brethren!”

As Michael Eisenberg, a contemporary venture capitalist and American émigré to Israel noted in his polemic commentary on Esther, beyond the possible questioning of Mordechai as a leader, the ending of the Megillah is further tinged with pessimism and even tragedy, an assimilationist tale of Jews barely retaining their national identity. Unlike the book of Ruth and its ending genealogy leading to the birth of King David, Esther ends with no look towards a viable future for the Jews of Shushan. Mordechai doesn’t leverage his political power to pave the way for a return of the Jews to Israel, where the Second Temple was already standing, but rather is absorbed into the economic and political machine that is the Persian empire. In fact, in his introduction to Eisenberg’s book, the Religious Zionist Rabbi Benjamin Lau suggests that contemporary Jews should consider reading, during the mincha prayers on Purim, the first two chapters of the biblical book of Nehemiah, which describe Nehemiah receiving permission from the Persian king to return to Israel and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, as a way to properly end the holiday.

Mordecai Manuel Noah sharpens the question raised by the biblical Mordechai: Can there be viable Jewish continuity in the diaspora, even in a country with the freedoms and protections of America? (In a tragic turn, two of Noah’s sons married Christians and one of his grandchildren, Florence Elizabeth Noah, married Junius Brutus Booth, nephew of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth). According to Eisenberg and Israeli bible scholars including Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Grossman and Rabbi Menachem Leibtag the very purpose of the megillah is a satirical one—to demonstrate that efforts to build vibrant Jewish life outside of Israel are quixotic. Whether it is the notorious absence of God’s name in the megillah as reflective of the hiddenness of His presence outside of Israel, Esther 10:1’s description of Ahashverosh’s levying of a tax (mas) that evokes the mention of Pharaoh placing taskmasters over the Israelites after the death of Joseph (sarei misim) in Exodus 1:11, or the megillah’s description of the repeated efforts of Mordechai and Esther to establish the observance of the holiday (9:29-31) reflecting a hesitancy of the wider Jewish community to formally establish a diaspora-focused new holiday, all signs in this reading of Esther point to there being as much of a promising future for Shushan’s Jews as there was the chance that the a ceremony in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York would lead to the first Jewish homeland in 1,800 years. According to other scholars, however, Esther argues not against Jewish diaspora life but for it, albeit reliant upon sound strategic political maneuvering by the Jews of Persia, who, this theory goes, couldn’t realistically pack up and move to Israel, nor should they feel compelled to attempt to do so.

On March 21, 2016, the Town Board of Grand Island, alongside a delegation of Jews, Christians and Muslims, announced plans to celebrate “Mordecai Manuel Noah Day” on July 19, Noah’s birthday, with a dinner at Byblos Niagara Resort and Spa. The plan was the brainchild of Michael Barsoum, pastor and founder of Community of St. Paul on the island, and of many who continue to be inspired by Noah’s tale. Born in Egypt into a Coptic Christian family, Barsoum was taught to hate Jewish people during his childhood. Forced to flee due to religious persecution in the 1980’s, he reexamined his feelings towards Jews, and came to admire their survival despite countless persecutions, including the Holocaust. “I am a refugee myself,” he told a report for the Buffalo News. “My heart is always for people who are persecuted and people who are deprived of their religious liberties.” After designing and leading hate prevention seminars in Toronto, Barsoum moved to Grand Island, where he continues his interfaith efforts. “Mordecai Manuel Noah Day,” he and the town hoped, would send a message of tolerance and freedom throughout the world. In fact, the Buffalo News reported, Barsoum created two books for people to sign for the occasion, “one for religious people, and the other for nonbelievers.” He planned to deliver the books to the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Alas, like so many efforts to bridge Grand Island and Jerusalem, so many efforts to have feet planted in the “land of the free” and eyes raised towards the Promised Land, Barsoum missed the proverbial boat. When I reached out to the reporter who wrote the story for the News to find out if Barsoum ever made it to Israel with the signed books, he graciously wrote back “I spoke to Nate McMurray, Grand Island’s Town Supervisor, and it sounds like Michael had good intentions, but got burned out, and didn’t follow through on some stuff.” Like Mordecai Manuel Noah and his biblical namesake, he never made it to Jerusalem.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.