The entrance to B’nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street in New York City.
(photo credit: COURTESY OF B’NAI JESHURUN)
It was a dream that died. It was a failed scheme designed to save persecuted Jews and grant them a refuge. It was called “Ararat,” evoking the mountain on which Noah’s Ark rested after the flood. And it emerged from the imagination, the ego, and the practical politics of Mordecai Manuel Noah.
Mordecai Manuel Noah was one of the most prominent American Jews of the early 19th century and considered himself the leader of Jews in the US. Noah was a stalwart supporter of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Party and his involvement in politics extended into the years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency and beyond. He was the son of an Ashkenazi veteran of the American Revolution and a Sephardi mother. He was orphaned at an early age and raised by his mother’s parents in Charleston. In 1803, at the age of 18, Noah was appointed a major in the Pennsylvania militia. After a failed attempt to publish a newspaper, he found his place in the world of politics.
In 1813 the Madison administration appointed Noah consul to Tunis. Despite Noah’s efforts to free Americans held captive by Barbary pirates, he was fired from his post in 1815. The US government claimed that Noah, as a Jew, would “prove a diplomatic obstacle in a [Muslim] community.”
But Noah’s Jewish roots were not the reason for the firing. The Madison administration knew he was an outspoken Jew from the beginning. He spent too much of the government’s money as consul and he failed to keep his missions secret – the US government was looking for a reason to get rid of him.
Noah did not keep quiet and through his Jewish and other political contacts built up his firing into a cause célèbre. Noah reveled in his role as a thorn in the side of the Madison administration and returned to journalism with the goal of becoming the leader of American Jewry. And it was as this self-styled head of his people that he conjured up the idea of “Ararat.”
In one of the best histories of American Jewry, Howard M. Sachar’s A History of the Jews in America, Sachar describes the pomp and surreal aspects of Mordecai Manuel Noah’s project. According to Sachar, Noah wanted “to establish a Jewish ‘homeland’ on American soil.” The site of this homeland would be Grand Island, a 17,000-acre tract in the Niagara River, near the border with Canada. Initially, Noah’s petition to the New York legislature to sell him this land failed. But Noah was not one to give up so easily.
Anti-Jewish riots in Germany led German Jews to express interest in Ararat. International interest in Noah’s Jewish homeland in the US spurred him on and reinforced the notion that he was an important leader in the Jewish world. Noah was able to raise enough money to buy up 2,444 acres of Grand Island. He published appeals to Jewish communities throughout the Europe to support his project. But the response was tepid. Still, this did not stop the self-styled leader of American Jewry.
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For the founding ceremony for Ararat, Noah chose Buffalo’s largest public facility, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (he chose Buffalo because nearby Grand Island was a wasteland). On September 15, 1825, the dedication ceremony took place. Departing a Masonic lodge for the church, there was the firing of canons, a band striking up a march while leading a procession of notables, including the Seneca chief Red Jacket, and at the head of it all was Mordecai Manuel Noah. To add to the surreal atmosphere was Noah’s dress: he rented a Richard III costume from a local theater company.
Historian Sachar describes the foundation ceremony: “On the church communion table lay the cornerstone for the Jewish community of Ararat, inscribed with the Hebrew Sh’ma. Here it was that Noah delivered his ‘Proclamation to the Jews’: I, Mordecai Manuel Noah, Citizen of the United States of America, late Consul of the said States for the City and Kingdom of Tunis, High Sheriff of New York, Counsellor at Law, and by the grace of God Governor and Judge of Israel, do hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State of Ararat.”
Noah then urged all Diaspora Jews to support this project and called for all who settled in Ararat to pay a three-shekel tax to cover the expenses of the new Jewish homeland.
There might have been more to Ararat than benevolence. Noah saw a personal economic opportunity in a major real estate bonanza.
Meanwhile, the German Jews who were supporters of Ararat realized that Noah’s fantasy would never become a reality.
American Jews and Whig politicians accused Noah of attempting to swindle wealthy European Jews. In 1833 Grand Island was bought by an investor in the island’s cheap timberland and 20 years later the island was incorporated as a town of later 18,000 people. Noah’s scheme collapsed but not his leadership of American Jewry. The Democratic Party awarded Noah with patronage jobs and Noah reveled in his high profile in American Jewry. Failure did not stop him from his mission as leader of American Jewry.
What are we to make of Mordecai Manuel Noah and this footnote in Jewish history? While he was an opportunist with a big ego, his vision of a Jewish homeland was imagined decades before the emergence of modern Zionism and many years before America became a haven for Jews fleeing antisemitism. Noah presaged Territorialists who believed in a Jewish homeland outside of the Land of Israel, but his plan was bound to fail. After two millennia of yearning for a return to the Land of Israel with the Hebrew language being revived, there was no way Ararat could work.
In fact, there was no need for a Jewish homeland in America – the great wave of German Jews who came to this land toward the end of Noah’s life in 1851 had no need for a homeland and successfully integrated into American life. America was their homeland. A Jewish homeland in America runs counter to Jewish immigrants embracing the American dream and American citizenship. An unfortunate outcome of integration is assimilation and loss of Jewish identity among America’s Jews, especially those today who are younger.
But Ararat was not the answer, although ahead of its time. Today, what remains of Ararat is the cornerstone of the phantom Jewish homeland displayed in the Grand Island Town Hall.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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