History in Review
Mordecai: An Early American Family
By Emily Bingham. (Hill & Wang - A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2004. Pg. 346. Family Tree, Map, Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-8090-7016-2.
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 17, 2004
In Mordecai: An Early American Family, Emily Bingham provides a fascinating glimpse of Jewish life in America from Colonial times through the Civil War. Multi-generational in scope, this narrative begins with Moses Mordecai's arrival in America from Britain. His immigration to the British colony was not voluntary. Rather he was sent to America as an indentured servant, in lieu of a prison sentence. When he had served his time, he set himself up as a peddler and married a gentile (non-Jewish) woman who unofficially converted to Judaism. It is from these humble beginnings that the Mordecai family tree was rooted.
The Mordecai's are not idolized within the pages of this book. Rather they are shown as they were, a real family, flaws and all. As important, Bingham takes pains to present the history of the Mordecai's from the viewpoint of all the members of the family - both male and female. In detailing the lives of the female members of the family, she not only looks at their roles as wives, mothers, and daughters, but also at the roles these women played in the public eye.
In this book, Bingham follows the history of the first three generations of Mordecai's. Starting from Moses arrival in America, the narrative takes the reader up through 1886, when the great influx of Eastern European Jews began to arrive in America. Centered primarily in Warrenton, North Carolina, as the Mordecai family grew, it spread out, with branches being established as far afield as Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Alabama. While some segments of the family struggled to maintain their religious identity and to follow their faith. Most however, appear to have willingly intermarried or converted to Christianity. In telling their story, Bingham not only chronicles an important aspect of Jewish American history, but she also highlights the tragic consequences of assimilating too well into the dominate culture. More important, she examines the forces that encouraged so many of the Mordecai's to forsake their Jewish heritage, as well as what enabled others to maintain their Jewishness - both culturally and religiously.
Mordecai: An Early American Family is a fascinating book to read. Bingham writes in a fluid and friendly style. Her portrayal of the various members of the Mordecai family is spiced with personal details that help the reader to understand why each member made the choices that they did. She provides details regarding the dynamics of the family, as a whole, as well as more intimate descriptions of personal relationships. Bingham also details the various attitudes, in different regions of the country, toward the Jews, and how these attitudes varied from time to time - and why. She also shows how incidents of antisemitism impacted the various members of the Mordecai family.
What is perhaps most striking about this book is just how much in common the 'Jewish' Mordecai's had with their non-Jewish neighbors. Despite differences in religion, the dreams and desires of most people where the same: a happy family life, economic prosperity, and good careers and marriages for their children. The political situation, however, often interfered with the achievement of these lofty goals. For instance, as Bingham points out, the Civil War pitted various members of the Mordecai family against each other - just as it divided many families throughout the nation, and the emotional animosity that the war engendered tended to last long after the war itself was settled.
Well-researched, and well-written, in Mordecai: An Early American Family, Bingham has crafted a fascinating book that chronicles the history of one American family. Through their eyes we witness two of the most pivotal events in American history - the Revolution and the Civil War, as we are given a glimpse into what life was like for the Jews during this period. The history of the Jews in America during this period has received, relatively speaking, very little coverage. Mordecai: An Early American Family helps to rectify this situation.
Despite being written for a general audience, students and historians will also find this book invaluable. Bingham has included extensive endnotes as well as detailed information on the source materials she used in researching this book. The bibliographical information contained in both of these sections will provide interested scholars with a solid foundation that they can use to delve further into this fascinating aspect of Jewish History.
The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, by Hasia R. Diner.
Offers a general survey of Jewish life in America, covering both historical, religious, and social milestones.
A History of the Jews in the Modern World, by Howard M. Sachar.
A general, comprehensive reference guide on Jewish history from the late 1700's through 2004.
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