Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Interview with Laura Leibman: Judaism and the Mutability of Race in Colonial-Era America

March 6, 2017

By Ruth Fertig

In America right now, race has become a deeply relevant part of our national discourse. Today, convention dictates racial categories and we tend to use appearance as a superficial classification system. But this was not always the case — at one point, race was mutable, and depended as much on factors such as one’s class, military service, and religion as on appearance and background.

Laura LeibmanLaura Leibman of Reed College received a 2015 HBI Research Award for an ongoing project, "From Slave to Merchant Princess: How Early American Jews Used Religion to Shift Their Race" on one particular woman, Sarah Brandon Moses, and her brother, Isaac Lopez Brandon, in colonial-era America, Barbados and other areas. Moses was born enslaved but by the time of her death was recategorized as a free white. Her conversion to Judaism and her travels were part of this transformation.

Leibman, currently a visiting fellow at Oxford University, answered some questions about her work for us. Leibman's Research Award is one of about 25 such awards given annually by HBI to scholars doing work in Jewish gender studies.

How did you first learn about Sarah Brandon Moses? What interested you in her story?

I first learned about Sarah Brandon Moses through her portrait and work I was doing on her brother Isaac Lopez Brandon, who was involved in a petition for Jewish rights in Barbados. The portrait was in the Loeb database of portraits of colonial Jews. Other family portraits and photos are in this collection and at the American Jewish Historical Society. The database didn’t mention Sarah's time as a slave, so I set about proving this history.

Some of the information in famous genealogies of the family was incorrect, so it took a while to track down evidence that she was the same sister who had been freed from slavery at the same time as her brother Isaac Lopez Brandon. I became interested in Sarah because she had started life under such adverse circumstances and at the margins of Jewish life, but had become so central to Jewish life in New York by the time of her death. She turns out to also be a rare example of a multiracial Jewish woman in early America about whom we have a fair amount of information.

How did you become interested in Jews in Barbados?

Basically, I'm a scholar of early America religion. My first book is on four generations of Native American men, women, and children who had converted to Christianity in 18th-century Martha's Vineyard. When I switched to researching Jewish topics, I thought I was just going to work on Newport, Rhode Island, but when I started tracking people I found they disappeared from some censuses and then reappeared in the next census. So I started looking where Jews in Newport were going and learned that the Caribbean was a major destination, particularly Barbados, which was an important trading partner. Jewish merchants would bring sugar and other items from Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean to Newport, process them, and then ship the products to England. I did a lot of work with Jews in communities in the Caribbean including Barbados for my second book, "Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early Jewish American Life" (2012).

Can you talk a little bit about your other work on Jewish identity formation and how it relates to this story?

Much of my work has focused on material culture — that is, objects of everyday life. I am interested in how Jews do or perform Judaism through everyday objects like food, clothing, or toys. Studying Jews and Judaism through objects helps us rethink how religion works. It also helps us tell the story of Jews who never wrote texts. We have no works written by Sarah herself, but we do have objects that were important in her life.

Most important is her portrait itself, which is miniature in ivory. The portrait was something people hadn't thought was historically very significant. Her granddaughter donated it with other miniatures to the American Jewish Historical Societies in the 1920s. In that context it didn’t seem that important because she donated other stuff from more well-known people. Today we know that Sarah and her brother's portraits are incredibly rare, though. There was a Daguerreotype from ca. 1846 that was donated to the Rijksmuseum that was the earliest known photo from Suriname, which also happens to be of a person of mixed Jewish and African ancestry. Sarah and her brother's miniatures were painted more than twenty years earlier, and are the earliest known portraits of multi-ethnic American Jews, of her and her brother.

Sarah's husband kept a small diary that talks about their kids and wedding. We have her baptismal records in Barbados. Sarah and Joshua's marriage contract helped solidify that Sarah was the same sister who had been in slavery. I am currently trying to find early photos of her house in London, which is part of the research I’m doing while in England. There are diaries from family members, portraits of her brother, husband, kids and grandkids, and early photos of her sons from the Civil War.

You say that "since non-Jews increasingly located Jewishness in Jews' physical bodies, I examine how early American Jew strategically used their bodies and the spaces those bodies inhabited to shape their identities." Can you expand on that? Are there ways that still happens now?

Let me give you two examples — one from the past one from today. Clothing was key to constructions of white manhood during the 1790s-1840s. If you look at caricatures of Mordecai Manuel Noah from the 1820s, the illustrators used clothing and hairstyle to mock Noah and show why Jews like Noah wouldn't make upright, moral citizens. In portraits Noah commissioned, however, he is shown as carefully adhering to the standards of white masculinity in terms of dress and coiffure. Today Jews still transform their bodies or conscript it to signal how they relate to Judaism and the world at large. Examples of this would include circumcision, tattoos, kippot or sheitls. The body can also be used by Jews to enact spiritual transformation, such as through immersion in a ritual bath.

Who is Mordecai Manuel Noah? Who was making caricatures of him and what did they do to mock him?

Mordecai Manuel Noah was the most famous Jew in the U.S. at the time. He was a member of various congregations including Shearith Israel in New York. He had one Sephardic grandparent but told people he was Sephardic because it was more prestigious. He served as the U.S. consul to Tunisia, but got fired because Secretary of State James Monroe though his Judaism was an "obstacle" to doing his job properly — a decision Noah protested.

Noah owned a couple newspapers in New York in which he wrote about news and politics. He tried to set up an early idea of "Jewish homeland" on Grand Island in the Niagara River, but it didn't succeed. Also, he was a playwright. He was in Newport in the 1820s talking about why Jews should have civil rights when a non-Jew in the audience drew a caricature of him. It has some of the racialized language of the body that you see later in caricatures, but a lot of what makes him "unmanly" is his clothing and loose hair, promulgating the stereotype that Jews have weird hair and disorderly bodies so they can't be trusted.

How did Sarah Brandon Moses first enter the Jewish community?

Sarah and her brother Isaac grew up in a Sephardic household, and they were the fourth generation of slaves in that household. Their owner was a central member of the Sephardic community in Bridgetown. For example when Rabbi Isaac Haim Carigal was rabbi of the Barbados congregation, one of the people he was closest to was the husband of Sarah’s owner. Sarah and Isaac's father was Abraham Rodriguez Brandon, the wealthiest Jew in the congregation, so they would have known about Judaism, but was unusual for people to convert in Barbados.

When she was quite young, she and her brother Isaac travelled to Suriname in Latin America in order to formally convert. Conversion was much less rare in Suriname than Barbados, and about 10% of the Jewish community was multiracial at the time. Even though Suriname was mainly a Dutch colony, between 1799-1816 it was overseen by British, so a lot of Jews travelled between Suriname and Barbados.

Can you expand a bit on the ways race functioned differently in Jewish communities than outside of them? Do you think this is still the case today, and if so, how?

In theory, Judaism is race-blind: regardless of how society at large interprets a person's "race," that racial designation shouldn't impact a person’s rights within a Jewish community. We are all klal yisrael. Thus while in the Barbados society at large people with partial African ancestry like Isaac Lopez Brandon had fewer rights than "whites," the Barbados Jewish community explicitly noted that they did not distinguish religiously between Isaac and other members of the island’s Jewish community.

This equality was different from in the Anglican Church on the island at the time, in which people of even partial African ancestry would have had limited rights. Other Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia, and London where Sarah and Isaac worshipped also did not distinguish between European and multiracial Jews. Unfortunately for Isaac, Barbados' Jewish community would eventually be pressured into retracting their stance on equality, and they demoted Isaac to a non-voting member of the congregation. Similarly in Suriname, Isaac wouldn't have been allowed to be a full member of either of the Jewish congregations. This sort of race-based religious hierarchy was extremely unusual, however, among early American Jewish communities. Equality was the norm.

Today Judaism is still in theory race-blind. I don't know of any Jewish communities today that have racial language in their bylaws. That said, Jewish American communities are certainly still impacted by structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism that are fairly ubiquitous in American life. It can be very painful when someone's Judaism is questioned merely because one looks different or has different traditions. Reclaiming and telling the history of multiracial and non-European Jews is one small way we can honor the diversity that has always been part of the Jewish American experience and remember that we are the better for that diversity.

You mention avenues of race change were more open to men than women. What were some specific ways women could change their race, both inside and outside the Jewish community?

Numerous factors impacted racial assignment in early America, including climate, class, politics, military service, economics, geography, genealogy and religion. Some of these weren't typically available to women, such as military service. For example in Suriname, whether one's parents were legally married impacted one's racial assignment. Racial terms varied widely across the Americas and even within the United States. Strangely, though, women's lack of civil rights sometimes made it easier for them to shift their race. When Isaac returned to Barbados after his conversion, his race became an issue when Jews petitioned to gain rights, as these same rights weren't available to men with African ancestry on the island. Likewise race was an issue for men like Isaac who came to the United States, because immigrants with African ancestry couldn’t become citizens. Sarah didn't have to undergo the same scrutiny as she couldn't vote either inside Jewish communities or in society at large. Her children were citizens and could vote because their father Joshua Moses, a Euro-American Jew, could.

How did the Jewish community where Sarah lived function relative to the community at large? How enclosed was it? That is, if Sarah was simply Jewish within the Jewish community, how much was she and the Jewish community affected by forces outside the Jewish community?

Jewish life in early America was different from from Eastern Europe or Venice where Jews lived in shtetls and ghettos. In Barbados, Suriname, New York, London, Jews were just interspersed with everyone else. There are streets where many Jews lived, alongside people of mixed Jewish ancestry who were tangentially part of the community. In some places the communities were porous, and the boundaries were a little fuzzy. Jews traded with people outside of the community. In the Caribbean, many Jewish families had relatives who were officially outside of the community but still lived nearby. In London, it was a lot less common to have family members who were not in but were right next to the Jewish community. In the early United States, intermarriage rates doubled after the Revolutionary War, reaching somewhere between 1/4 to 1/3 of all marriages made by Jews between 1776 and 1840.

Jews' relationship to non-Jews also varied a lot place to place. A lot of times Jews were discriminated against based not on race, but religion. In most of the locations Sarah lived, Jews didn't have the right to vote and hold office, even in some places until the 1820s or even later. The rationale for this was on religion, not race. To vote, they would have to convert and take a Christian oath. In other places, there's a racial category for Jews in the census, between white and nonwhite. A lot of the civil rights you see for free people of color are the same for Jews, which is less common than just not wanting to give Jews rights because they aren't Christian. But, the difference is that Jews could gain rights if they converted and became Anglican.

Whether they intended to or not, Sarah and Isaac were able to take advantage of varying laws and concepts of race by moving around so much. It also helps that they were racially ambiguous and incredibly wealthy, which helped them navigate these various communities.

What impact has the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute had on your work?

One of the most exciting results of the funding from the HBI was that I was able to trace Sarah's maternal slave ancestry back to her great-grandmother and to map out the genealogy of her mother’s extended family. This ended up being crucial. As it turns out Sarah's aunt was one of the most important women in early Barbados' history and in the struggle for civil rights on the island. Knowing more about Sarah's maternal line changes the story I can tell about her, as it accounts better for the impact of the enslaved and free Afro-Barbadian community on her life.

Ruth Fertig is a senior at Brandeis University and a student blogger for Fresh Ideas.

Laura Arnold Leibman is a professor of English and humanities at Reed College in Portland, She is the author of "Indian Converts" (U Mass. P. 2008) and numerous academic articles, and served as the academic director of the award-winning, multimedia public television series "American Passages: A Literary Survey" (2003). Her book "Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life" (Vallentine Mitchell 2012) won a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award and a National Jewish Book Award, and was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title. Her current project uses material culture to explore the topic of Jews and race during the emancipation debates that swept the Americas in the 1790s-1830s.