Mordecai An Early American Family

Emily Bingham

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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Emily Bingham's evocative telling of one American Jewish family's history is at the forefront of a new way of exploring our past, one that follows the course of national events through the relationships that speak most immediately to us: those between parent and child, sibling and sibling, husband and wife. In Bingham's sure hands, the remarkable Mordecais talk directly to us, and an unforgettable picture of one family's struggle to succeed in early America emerges.

Few American families were caught so thoroughly in the roil of America's early history as the Mordecais. Over three generations, they witnessed the Continental Congress convening in Philadelphia, struggled to understand their faith during the evangelical fervor of the Great Awakening, joined patrols in the aftermath of Nat Turner's revolt, participated in the free-love experiments of the 1850s, and watched firsthand as the Union Army razed Richmond. And through it all they wrote—letters, diaries, newspaper articles, books—having made personal and familial enlightenment through self-improvement their anchor throughout the tumultuous decades.

Drawn from these rich archives, Mordecai is a remarkable re-creation of one family's first century in the United States. It gives this nation's early history a uniquely personal face.


Praise for Mordecai

"Mordecai is the fascinating story of a remarkable Jewish family in the overwhelmingly Protestant antebellum South, and truly an American saga."—David Herbert Donald, Harvard University

"An elegant work of family history . . . Bingham's family saga possess many virtues. It is impressively researched, well grounded in extensive collections of Mordecai family papers. It is written with a novelist's eye for character and detail. And it brims with episodes that will interest students of early American religion. It is especially sensitive in tracing how various Mordecai family members navigated a southern culture increasingly devoted to evangelical Protestantism . . . Students of family history and gender studies in early America will find Mordecai particularly useful."—Mark S. Schantz, The Journal of American History

"This fascinating story of one of the first Jewish-American families parallels the saga of a developing nation."—L. Elisabeth Beattie, Lexington Herald-Leader

"Emily Bingham's gripping saga of a southern Jewish family, from its Revolutionary forbears to its divided houses during the Confederate era, draws readers deeper and deeper into a forgotten chapter of southern history. Especially absorbing are her portraits of Mordecai women: their challenges and expectations as sweethearts and wives, as ladies and patriots are complicated by region and religion in ways that revise if not redefine southern women's antebellum experience."—Catherine Clinton, author of Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars

"[An] important and detailed history of an early-American family . . . While Bingham effectively presents the Mordecais' history as akin to a Biblical drama, she also opens a window on the American Revolution and Civil War through the lives of an American Jewish family before mass immigration from Eastern Europe."—Judith Bolton-Fasman, The Jerusalem Report

"The story of Jacob Mordecai, his daughter Rachel, and her son Marx is compelling and illuminating . . . This book is a well-honed reference tool for academics."—Patty Friedmann, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

"Fascinating . . . Through a biography of one of North Carolina's most prominent Jewish families, Bingham relates how some late-18th- and 19th-century Americans took advantage of new ideologies and opportunities to achieve personal and professional goals . . . Better than many conventional historical narratives on the market today, Mordecai truly captures early American experiences. Bingham, an independent writer who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, combines thorough research—drawing on diaries, letters, journals, business logs, and other ephemera—with a lively writing style, to bring to life the new choices and opportunities that encouraged early Americans to reconceptualize life patterns and agendas. Through the lives of the Mordecai family, she details the new philosophies in education, medicine, gender roles, religion, love, and respectability that afforded early Americans broader choices."—Jennifer A. Stollman, The Raleigh News & Observer

"This account of a Jewish family in the Old South makes an original and illuminating contribution to our understanding of the formation of American nationhood—and marks the debut of a remarkably talented young historian."—Arthur M. Schlesinger

"Bingham [here focuses] on the assimilation of three generations of an antebellum southern Jewish family. In doing so, she offers a new approach to scholars of the American South and of American Jewish history . . . In creating such a descriptive family biography, the author mined through thousands of the Mordecai family's private and public documents. While strictly focused on tracing 0 the events and experiences of the Mordecai family, this work is especially revealing about changing ideas about religion, race, economics, urbanization, medicine, sexuality, and gender norms. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Bingham's work is the way in which she approaches assimilation . . . Her framework provides nuance and offers plausible reasons for the high rates of exogamy and conversion during this period. Additionally, her approach compellingly suggests that assimilation for antebellum southern Jews was not direct or immediate, nor can it be traced through simple factors such as social anxiety or a desire to conform. Bingham depicts assimilation as a complex, uneven, and a very individualized experience affected by a host of external and internal pressures and goals. Scholars will do well to follow her lead and expand their understanding of assimilation as a process that is, among other things, inextricably linked to particular events, ideologies, family situations, geographical settings, class formations, and individual psyches."—Journal of the Southern Jewish Historical Society

"Bingham's masterful narration allows us to peer into inner emotional and intellectual worlds, with particular attention to the Mordecais' struggle with an evolving Jewish identity. Using family letters artfully, beautifully, and even suspensefully, Bingham reconstructs scenes like a novelist. Her chapters are brief and digestible, flawlessly connected, and chronologically flowing. The text is unencumbered by superfluities or irrelevancies . . . Bingham's focus on the Mordecai women helps fill a gap in colonial American Jewish studies, which often privilege middle- and upper-class males."—Aviva Ben-Ur, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, The Journal of Southern History

"With a historian's care and a novelist's sense of story, Emily Bingham brings to life a family of Southern Jews struggling to reconcile loyalty to their tradition with membership in a regional society where it had not yet taken root. It's a testament to Bingham's talent that she has made the Mordecais feel every bit as loving and complicated as families really are."—Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

ri20"Sometimes, writers alight on a group of truly compelling characters—people whose stories are both their own as well as those of the society at large. Such is the case with Mordecai: An Early American Family . . . The book's success in offering an intimate view of both the family and early American history—it traverses the period from the Revolution to the Civil War—is due primarily to Bingham's choice of subjects."—Ken Gordon, Forward

"Emily Bingham has written a wonderful story about three generations of people who wrestled with their religious and personal identities in a changing American culture. She beautifully captures the personalities of creative and intelligent people whose Judaism merges with the larger culture in varied and complex ways. Here is cultural history written through the stories of flesh and blood people brought to life in a compelling and memorable way. Here is religion lived by imaginative people who push the boundaries of faith beyond tradition through the richness of their own personal experiences. Here is history written for those who enjoy good stories brilliantly told."—Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"In Mordecai: An Early American Family, Emily Bingham brings to life a compelling family whose struggles illuminate the first century of the American Republic. From the American Revolution to the Civil War and beyond, this 'little faithful band of love and duty' balanced their devotion to each other, their Jewish faith, and their identity as Southerners through periods of intellectual, political, and economic turmoil. Drawing on published writings and thousands of letters by the men and women of this articulate family, Emily Bingham tells a vivid and fascinating story. The Mordecais take their place as one of the great American families in this lively, compassionate, and probing group portrait."—Joy Kasson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"What a gift for the 350th anniversary of Jews coming to America! With more than ten thousand letters and documents to draw from and ten years of research to master them, Bingham has written an irresistible historical narrative about the troubles and triumphs of the early Jewish immigrants and their descendents who bet their lives on America."—Eli Evans, author of The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South and Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate

"Mordecai is an American family saga unlike any other. In this work of elegant simplicity and vivid historical detail, Emily Bingham recovers the lives of a Jewish family striving for acceptance and success in the early nineteenth-century South . . . A tale of telling and poignant struggle, as some of the Mordecais clung to their faith in Judaism, others accommodated evangelical Christianity, and all members of the family laid claim to enlightened learning and to the emerging middle-class ideals of respectability and domesticity. Rich and rewarding, this story is a feast for all connoisseurs of American religious history and the history of the antebellum South."—Christine Leigh Heyrman, University of Delaware

"Mordecai is a wonderful story, in many ways a paradigm of the Jewish historical experience in the South, whether antebellum or later. Better than any comparable book I've read, it embodies both the dilemmas and opportunities involved in an intensely American drama."—Louis D. Rubin, Jr., author of My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews

"Bingham's carefully researched and beautifully written saga throws light on never-before-revealed aspects of religion and life in the antebellum South. An unforgettable tale of the making and the unmaking of an early American Jewish family."—Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University

"[Bingham's] book exhaustively mines both the Mordecais' correspondence and the supplementary collections of their diaries and personal papers to furnish a finely grained portrait of a Southern Jewish clan whose members, more often than not, were at odds with one another, especially when it came to matters of belief."—Jenna Weissman Joselit, The New Republic

"An absorbing read . . . With the help of a rich cache of letters, author Emily Bingham invites her readers into three generations of a remarkable family's struggle over the course of several generations, to balance personal ambition, family loyalty, and public service . . . Bingham, whose prose is lyrical and enticing, is skillful at drawing the relationships between the wider world and the personal world of the Mordecais . . . [She] gracefully integrates gender issues and perspectives into her narrative and demonstrates the interplay between gender, race, and religion as aspects of ostracism and oppression in the antebellum South. She is astute in her analysis of the potential of the family to be both firm support and stifling straightjacket . . . Bingham's readers will be caught up in the pleasure of a good story well-told, and teachers will be delighted to have a new tool with which to enliven classroom discussions of comparative early American family life . . . In focusing the Mordecais' story around the family's internal working and dreams, Bingham has provided an especially rich contribution to the growing body of literature that explores the American Jewish experience in regional, class, and local terms . . . In chronicling the lives of the Mordecai generations, Emily Bingham has captured the spirit of our times."—Emma Lapsansky, The Women's Review of Books

"Bingham's debut presents Jews in knee-breeches and hoop skirts, capturing the chosen people's romance with America in a family history through three generations. From the days shortly after the Revolution, when founding father Jacob Mordecai established an ethical covenant with his progeny, through the post-civil War national expansion, when the clan's cohesive spirit dissipated, the Mordecais were active in education, commerce, and spiritual matters. Leaving the North, Jacob quickly established roots in antebellum North Carolina, keeping store there as many coreligionists would do in years to come. When business faltered, the Mordecais undertook the education of young southern belles while also attending to the moral and mental improvement of family members. As the years passed, some engaged in finance, some in military service or law, while others remained bookish and quite concerned with matters relating to their souls. With strains on traditional practices, assimilation and intermarriage were surely inevitable, and the Mordecais' activities foreshadow the subsequent advent of Judaism's Reform movement. Divergent philosophies produced defection and apostasy; several members of the family embraced Jesus as Savior. But religion was not all that affected the family: Bingham hints at incest and shows the War Between the States dividing the one-time slaveholders; proto-communist notions and the utopianism of Brook Farm appealed to some Mordecais; others were enticed by free love; and one physician grappled with the problem of his frequent wet dreams. Crafting a family history that might have captivated Thomas Mann, the author paints distinct, expressive portraits of Rachel, Moses, Ellen, George, and all their kin; the distaff side is particularly vivid, perhaps because the women were prolific writers who produced considerable primary-source material. In many ways a case study in assimilation, the Mordecais' story is not unique, but it is unusually well documented. Depicted with precision and sympathy, the adventures of a single family prove to also be the story of how America changed Judaism in the 19th century."—Kirkus Reviews

"In 1815, Alfred Mordecai, the son of a middle-class Jewish family from Warenton, N.C., applied as a cadet to West Point, 'a bold bid for a Jew.' Despite high odds, Alfred was accepted—another step in the complex assimilation of the Mordecai family into U.S. society. Bingham, an independent scholar, draws on a large cache of letters and journals written by members of the Mordecai family and a wealth of other published material, to piece together a detailed history of this remarkable Southern Jewish clan. The Mordecais' history is deftly charted through three generations, beginning with Jacob and Judith moving to Virginia from Philadelphia in 1785, through Jacob's founding, with his grown children, of a renowned primary school and the conversion to Christianity of some family members during the Second Great Awakening of the mid-19th century. From there, Bingham follows the family sundering that occurred in the 1860s, when most of the family supported the Confederacy, and Alfred, refusing either to side with them or to support the war in any way, resigned from the Union army. But as thrilling as this family history is, Bingham's great feat here is to show, through the social, political, and religious evolutions of one family, how class, race, ethnicity, region, and intellectual affiliation profoundly affected assimilation in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Bingham's prose is as fluid as fiction, but she never sacrifices historical insight for narrative drive or soft-pedals such uncomfortable material as the Mordecais owning slaves. This is an important addition not only to Jewish studies but to the literature on family and gender relations in the 19th century."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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