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Passing of Mordecai Manuel Noah, 1851

On This Day in Jewish History: March 22, 1948

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On this day, March 22, 1851, Mordecai Manuel Noah, playwright, diplomat, journalist, politician, sheriff, editor, lawyer, and utopian Zionist passed away. Today, he is recognized as one of the most influential figures of American Jewry in the first half of the 19th century. Noah is often remembered for his attempt to establish a Jewish colony on Grand Island, New York, which some scholars view as the beginning of the modern push for Jewish sel-determination. His vision was that this colony, which he called ‘Ararat’ (based on the Biblical mountain that Noah's ark ended up on after The Flood), would be a ‘‘City of Refuge” and a temporary haven for the world’s persecuted Jews on their way to the Holy Land. Noah was born in Philadelphia in 1785. His father, Manuel Noah, immigrated from Germany and served in the Revolutionary War. His mother, Zipporah Phillips, died when Noah was 7 and he went to live with his maternal grandfather Jonas Phillips. His grandfather instilled in him a passion and reverence for America that would characterise much of Noah’s future endeavours. Noah supported war with Britain in 1812 and wrote strident editorials about the war for Charleston’s City Gazette. These editorials helped secure his appointment as the U.S. Consul to the Kingdom as Tunis in 1813. However, Secretary of State James Monroe later removed him from this position citing Noah’s religion as “an obstacle to the exercise of function”. On his return to New York City, Noah threw himself into journalism and continued writing on politics. Noah went on to become editor and publisher of the National Advocate along with other notable publications of the day, founding the New York Enquirer and the New York Evening Star. In 1822 he was appointed sheriff of New York County. In one of his most notable acts as sheriff, Noah freed inmates from debtors prison during a yellow fever outbreak, personally becoming liable for their combined debt. He also wrote numerous plays throughout his lifetime, including "Fortress of Sorrento", "She Would Be A Soldier", and "Siege of Tripoli". Noah was a founder of New York University and supported the idea of a Jewish Hospital, Mount Sinai, which was eventually established after his death. When he was 42, Noah married 17 year old Rebecca Jackson. Together they had 7 children. While his role in public life was no doubt influential and illustrious, Noah is mostly remembered today for his pre-occupation with the destiny of the Jewish people. At the Consecration of Congregation Shearith Israel’s new building in 1818, Noah delivered a now famous address concerning the restoration of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, occupied by the Ottomans at the time. The speech underlined his understanding of the historical arc of Jewish suffering, particularly in the context of the Spanish and Portugese Inquisitions. During his travel to Europe and the Barbary Coast as consul, he observed the often oppressive conditions in which the Jews lived and became further convinced of the need for a Jewish refuge. In 1825, with support from mostly Christian friends, Noah purchased Grand Island in the Niagara River. In a theatrical inauguration ceremony, dressed in Shakespearean style clothing, Noah gave a speech where he claimed to "revive, renew and re-establish the Government of the Jewish Nation under the auspices and protection of the constitution and laws of the United States of America," marrying his Jewish identity to his American patriotism. Noah’s colony was ultimately unsuccessful, despite attracting a large amount of public interest. However, Noah held onto his proto-Zionist ideas, and in both his lectures and writing, he continued asserting that the Land of Israel was only homeland for the Jews. When Noah died a month after suffering a stroke in 1851, he was considered the most famous Jew in America.

Sources:

Gordis, R. (1951). Mordecai Manuel Noah, A Centenary Evaluation. Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 41(1), 1-26. Weingrad, M. (2007). Messiah, American Style: Mordecai Manuel Noah and the American Refuge. AJS Review, 31(1), 75-108. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mordecai-manuel-noah https://archives.cjh.org/repositories/3/resources/15649https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/mordecai-manuel-noah-6902

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