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Mordecai Manuel Noah medal (2012) by Eugene Daub
Mordecai Manuel Noah

Mordecai Manuel Noah was born in Philadelphia, on July 19, 1785. He was the first-born son of Manuel Noah, an immigrant from Mannheim, Germany, who had served in the Revolutionary War, and Zipporah Phillips, daughter of Jonas Phillips and Rebecca Machado, whose father had served as hazzan of the Shearith Israel Congregation of New York. Though three of his grandparents were Ashkenazi, Noah stressed his Sephardi identity.

As a public servant, Noah served as a Major in the New York Militia, Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis, sheriff of New York and surveyor of its port, and judge in its court of General Sessions. In his lifetime, Noah was editor of half a dozen newspapers. In the Jewish community, Noah served as its chief orator, delivering the major addresses at its important communal gatherings. As an accepted interpreter of Judaism to the general community, he informed his audience in newspaper articles and from the lecture platform about various aspects of Jewish religion and history, about Jewish concerns and aspirations. To Americans he was the representative Jew; to Jews, he was the quintessential American.

Portrait of Mordecai Manuel Noah by John Wesley Jarvis, in the collection of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City.

Noah fully believed that his appointment to a governmental position of trust would be a powerful statement to the world both about the status of Jews in America and the nature of American democracy. Noah wrote to Secretary of State James Monroe in 1811, that his appointment to a consulship would "prove to foreign powers that our government is not regulated in the appointment of their officers by religious distinction."

Unfortunately, even after he had arranged for the freedom of Americans held captive by Barbary Coast pirates, Noah's position as Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis was terminated by Secretary of State James Monroe, who stated: "At the time of your appointment, as Consul to Tunis, it was not known that the religion which you profess would form an obstacle to the exercise of your Consular functions." Noah's response, in part, was: "My dismissal from office in consequence of religion, has become a document on file in the department of State. This may hereafter produce the most injurious effects establishing a principle, which will go to annihilate the most sacred rights of the citizen."

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, America's greatest need was for immigrants. In his travels in Europe and Africa, Noah learned that Jews in the Old World desperately needed a haven for themselves and their children. To bring such Jews to a welcoming America would be a signal service to both. Thus, in Buffalo, New York on September 15, 1825, Noah dedicated Ararat as "A City of Refuge for the Jews." Accounts of the Ararat ceremony appeared in newspapers throughout the United States and in England, France, and Germany as well. The event presented the Jews as the most desirable citizens a nation could want-able, ambitious, productive, and loyal; to the Jews of the Old World, it portrayed what kind of country America was for the Jews. America's most prominent Jew proclaimed a Jewish state on American soil and welcomed his brethren to settle it.

The ceremonies included the laying of the cornerstone, with its Hebrew prayer "Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad" (Hear O Israel the Lord is God the Lord is One) and English inscription: "Ararat, a City of Refuge for the Jews, founded by Mordecai M. Noah in the Month of Tishri, 5586 (September, 1825) and in the Fiftieth Year of American Independence." The cornerstone is on now on display at the Buffalo Historical Society.

While Noah's efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in the United States failed, in 1837, he called for: "The Jewish people must now do something for themselves ... Syria [i.e., Palestine] will revert to the Jewish nation by purchase ... Under the co-operation and protection of England and France, this reoccupation of Syria ... is at once reasonable and practicable."

Noah wrote these prophetic words a half-century before Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat, and more than a century before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948:

"The Jews are in a most favorable position to repossess ... the promised land, and organize a free and liberal government ... Those who desire to reside in the Holy Land and have not the means, may be aided by ... societies to reach their haven of repose ... Ports of the Mediterranean [will be] occupied by enterprising Jews. The valley of the Jordan will be filled by agriculturists from ... Germany, Poland and Russia."

Mordecai Manuel Noah's obituary in the Boston Weekly Museum, occupied the entire front page of the April 26, 1851 issue, and concluded with these words:

"In his determined insistence on being part of America's political, social, and cultural life while at the same time participating in Jewish religious and communal life, Mordecai Manuel Noah demonstrated by example that in America a Jew could be both fully Jewish and fully American. As the first to do so publicly, dramatically, and successfully, Noah might well be called 'The first American Jew'."

Bibliography: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, 1991).

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