Mordecai Manuel Noah, the Book of Esther, and the Ambiguities of the Jewish Diaspora

February 28, 2020 | Stuart Halpern
About the author:

Born in Philadelphia to a prominent Jewish family, Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) was a playwright, essayist, lawyer, and (briefly) the U.S. consul to Tunis. He also served as a New York City sheriff, founded several newspapers, corresponded with ex-presidents on the subject of Jewish rights, and, in 1825, embarked on a quixotic proto-Zionist project to create a Jewish colony on Grand Island—located in the Niagara River separating western New York from Canada. Considering Noah’s colorful career, Stuart Halpern compares him with his biblical namesake:

The first Jew to confront openly the challenges and opportunities of American freedom, Mordecai Manuel Noah, like the biblical Mordechai, attempted through his actions to make the case that Jews could be robed in the clothing of leaders, spokespeople, and guardians of their country—for the benefit of their Jewish brethren, and the benefit of all citizens of the realm. Whether that case was a convincing one, in the eyes of their respective Jewish communities or in the minds of the citizenry of their respective home countries, remains open to debate.

[To some], the ending of the book of Esther is . . . tinged with pessimism and even tragedy, [a] tale of Jews barely retaining their national identity. Unlike the book of Ruth, which concludes with a genealogy leading to the birth of King David, Esther ends without offering hope of a viable future for the Jews of Shushan, [the Persian capital where the book takes place]. Mordechai doesn’t leverage his political power to pave the way for a return of the Jews to Israel, where the Second Temple was already standing, but rather is absorbed into the economic and political machine that is the Persian empire.

Mordecai Manuel Noah sharpens the question raised by the biblical Mordechai: can there be viable Jewish continuity in the Diaspora, even in a country with the freedoms and protections of America? According to [some rabbis and scholars], the very purpose of the megillah [read on Purim] is a satirical one—to demonstrate that efforts to build vibrant Jewish life outside of Israel are quixotic. [In this reading], the notorious absence of God’s name in the megillah, reflective of the hiddenness of His presence outside of Israel, [is one of many] signs that there was as much of a promising future for Shushan’s Jews as there was the chance that a ceremony in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York, [held by Noah to inaugurate his Grand Island project], would lead to the first Jewish homeland in 1,800 years.

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