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'Mordecai': A Jewish Family History

<I>Mordecai: An Early American Family</I>, by Emily Bingham
Mordecai: An Early American Family, by Emily Bingham

The Mordecais were among the first Jewish families to settle in the South after the Revolutionary War. A new book tells the story of how they struggled to assimilate into American society while retaining their identity as Jews, a story that still resonates in today's America, author Emily Bingham says.

Mordecai: An Early American Family traces the history of an ordinary Jewish family through early American history, from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. In the nation's early days, Bingham tells NPR's Bob Edwards, being a Jew "was a new proposition.

"It was not the European story that we're familiar of pogroms and shtetls and ghettos with the kind of prejudice and anti-Semitism that was so rife there," Bingham says. "It was a place where... the page was open."

The family found its identify through its passions: education, hard work and the constant desire to improve their lives, she says.

Jacob Mordecai, the patriarch, came South but didn't do very well in business. But he was "able to apply his intellectual gifts to opening a boarding school for girls in early 19th century North Carolina" at a time when the idea of female education was just beginning to take hold.

Bingham was able to learn much about the Mordecais through letters they wrote each other as they spread out across the country.

When Jacob's first wife, Judith, died in 1796, he wrote a letter -- Bingham describes it as a covenant -- to his children that forged a bond among them. Judith's death left the family "in a terrible position because she played such an enormous role in cultivating who this family was and how they would survive in the backwoods of North Carolina."

Jacob wrote that Judith had "wanted them to always improve themselves, always pay tribute to God in some way every day, to stick together... in thick and thin," Bingham says. For the next several decades, the family strove to fulfill that dream.

Below is an excerpt from Mordecai: An Early American Family. The passage describes the letter Jacob wrote after Judith's death:

Book Excerpt

That summer, Jacob composed for the six children a long letter delineating Judy's life and describing her death. The letter amounted to a covenant, setting forth the precepts that would keep Judy's influence alive among them. The manuscript pointed a way out of the confusion they faced in light of their loss, but also as Jews and as newcomers to the South and as Americans in a free society. The letter became for the Mordecais a road map to virtue.

The document constituted the legacy of Jacob and Judy's union, for in 1796 there was little to show in the way of worldly goods or success. However, in his portrait of Judy's life Jacob consecrated the founding of a family that was different, chosen, and not simply because they were Jews. Religious duties received but passing acknowledgment in Jacob's letter to his and Judy's children. The spirit of the covenant was emancipated, and reverently so. What Jacob consecrated in this document was the family's commitment to aim for the highest levels of intellectual cultivation, family solidarity, and dedication to useful work. The implication was that these qualities would raise the Mordecais above others, nourishing their spirits and encouraging them to earn respect and recognition-not so much as Jewish Americans but as Americans who happened to be Jewish.

The covenant required that Jacob use reason when governing the children and never lose his self-control. He was to be "their best friend to whom they may with confidence unbosom themselves." Theirs was to be a loving family, sensitive to feelings, yet also a rational family that valued education, ideas, and books, and a liberal family that tolerated people of all faiths, embracing "virtue in whatever garb it" might appear.

The demands on the children were broad, almost elastic, but stringent nonetheless. They were to "fulfill [their] duties in life." They were to improve themselves and the world around them yet remain modest at all times. They must keep faith by giving glory and thanks to God in some way every day, although this need never interfere with their work or play. Finally, the Mordecais must "foster and protect each other."

From Mordecai: An Early American Family, published by Hill and Wang, Copyright ©2003 Emily Bingham

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