MORDECAI by Emily Bingham

MORDECAI

An Early American Family
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KIRKUS REVIEW

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. (16 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8090-2756-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2003