Monday, April 19, 2021

In September 1825, Mordecai Noah, diplomat, playwright and America’s best-known Jew at the time, spoke of building a “city of refuge” for Jews in the promised land of America, a city to be called Ararat after the mountain where another Noah came to rest after the flood.

Mordecai Noah used the occasion to speak about the condition of Jews in the world: “They suffer much and are deprived of many valuable rights.” Jews, said Noah, need a “period of regeneration,” a word much spoken in early 19th-century America, the time of our Second Great Awakening, a time of searching and dreaming. Jews, said Noah, also need “ample livelihood and corresponding happiness.” This Jewish dream of regeneration and the pursuit of happiness, known to later generations as the American dream, seems to have found one of its earliest and most eloquent spokesmen on that September day long ago. Mordecai Noah spoke of Jews who, “under the influence of perfect freedom,” would “cultivate their minds, acquire liberal principles” and find a temporary resting place, an Ararat, on the way to redemption. In addition to his role in American life, Noah arguably became America’s first Zionist, speculating about a return of Jews to their ancestral homeland.

Mordecai Noah was born in Philadelphia to one of America’s leading Jewish families, with both Sephardic and Ashkenazic ancestry. His ancestors include Jonas Phillips, a wealthy and influential Jew of the Revolutionary period. There were only 2,500 Jews in America at the beginning of the 19th century and 50,000 by mid-century. Many Jews came in the early 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, after the War of 1812 and Andrew Jackson’s first presidential bid, but well before the waves of immigration that came later.

Circumstances in Europe began to deteriorate for many Jews after the Napoleonic Wars. It appears the mass migration of young Jews from Central Europe to America that began in the 1820s was in part a consequence of this deterioration. At the same time, opportunities in America expanded after the War of 1812, sometimes viewed as the American theater of the Napoleonic Wars. Some Jews who came during this post-war period indeed saw America, as Mordecai Noah did, as a resting place on the way to redemption. Aaron Phillips of Charleston, also writing in 1825, told his parents: “America the promised land, the free and glad America has all my heart’s desire.... Dear parents, if only the Israelites knew how well you can live in this country, no one really would live in Germany any longer.”

Aaron Phillips’ enthusiastic message is remarkable on several counts. Not only does he explicitly refer to America as “the promised land,” he also avers that “America has all [his] heart’s desire,” just as Psalmists and poets of earlier days, and later ones, celebrated Jerusalem. Finally, it is difficult to read what Phillips says about “no one really would live in Germany any longer” without a sense of foreboding amidst the buoyant tone and celebratory language.

With their talk of perfect freedom, of cultivated minds and liberal principles of livelihood, happiness and redemption, Mordecai Noah and Aaron Phillips are remarkable, almost messianic characters of a type not unknown to the New York of the early 19th century, but too little known in the fascinating story of Jews and America.

America’s story and the story of its Jews: These form the remarkable basis for a new initiative of the Tikvah Fund aimed at creating a community of exceptional Jewish day school and yeshiva educators interested in strengthening how we teach American civilization. Called the Abraham Lincoln Teachers Fellowship, this initiative will involve a selected group of high school and middle school teachers of American history and related disciplines who will spend time with a group of Tikvah scholars, with their peers, and with world-renowned guest speakers, reading, discussing and thinking hard about great themes of American history, with a special emphasis on Jewish themes, taught with imagination and spirit. The program extends from January to May 2021, with advanced seminars every other week on Zoom and guided independent study on subjects of special interest to each individual teacher. Fellows will be eligible to apply for additional summer funding and programming.

The Tikvah Fund is looking to support teachers who still believe in the indispensability of the historical imagination. In this spirit, this new initiative will cover a wide range of themes—religion, freedom, self-government, equality and commerce—across our 400 years and more of history. See tikvahfund.org/lincoln for a more detailed description of these subjects.

We at the Tikvah Fund hope that you will consider joining or nominating someone who will.

By Harry Ballan