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Mordecai: An Early American Family [Hardcover]

Emily Bingham
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 16, 2003 0809027569 978-0809027569 1st
An Intimate Portrait of a Jewish American Family in America’s First Century

Mordecai is a brilliant multigenerational history at the forefront of a new way of exploring our past, one that follows the course of national events through the relationships that speak most immediately to us—between parent and child, sibling and sibling, husband and wife. In Emily Bingham’s sure hands, this family of southern Jews becomes a remarkable window on the struggles all Americans were engaged in during the early years of the republic.
Following Washington’s victory at Yorktown, Jacob and Judy Mordecai settled in North Carolina. Here began a three generational effort to match ambitions to accomplishments. Against the national backdrop of the Great Awakenings, Nat Turner’s revolt, the free-love experiments of the 1840s, and the devastation of the Civil War, we witness the efforts of each generation’s members to define themselves as Jews, patriots, southerners, and most fundamentally, middle-class Americans. As with the nation’s, their successes are often partial and painfully realized, cause for forging and rending the ties that bind child to parent, sister to brother, husband to wife. And through it all, the Mordecais wrote—letters, diaries, newspaper articles, books. Out of these rich archives, Bingham re-creates one family’s first century in the United States and gives this nation’s early history a uniquely personal face.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1815, Alfred Mordecai, the son of a middle-class Jewish family from Warrenton, N.C., applied as a cadet to West Point, "a bold bid for a Jew." Despite high odds, Alfred was accepted-another step in the complex assimilation of the Mordecai family into U.S. society. Bingham, an independent scholar, draws on a large cache of letters and journals written by members of the Mordecai family and a wealth of other published material, to piece together a detailed history of this remarkable Southern Jewish clan. The Mordecais' history is deftly charted through thee generations beginning with Jacob and Judith moving to Virginia from Philadelphia in 1785, through Jacob's founding, with his grown children, of a renowned primary school and the conversion to Christianity of some family members during the Second Great Awakening of the mid-19th century. From there, Bingham follows the family sundering that occurred in the 1860s, when most of the family supported the Confederacy, and Alfred, refusing either to side with them or to support the war in any way, resigned from the Union army. But as thrilling as this family history is, Bingham's great feat here is to show, through the social, political and religious evolutions of one family, how class, race, ethnicity, region and intellectual affiliation profoundly affected assimilation in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Bingham's prose is as fluid as fiction, but she never sacrifices historical insight for narrative drive or soft-pedals such uncomfortable material as the Mordecais owning slaves. This is an important addition not only to Jewish studies but to the literature on family and gender relations in the 19th century. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Encompassing the Revolutionary War, which formed the nation, and the Civil War, which split it in two, this engrossing book tells the story of three generations of a lower-middle-class Jewish family that settled first in Virginia and later in North Carolina. Drawing on thousands of vibrant letters, diaries, and journals, Bingham offers a portrait of the Mordecai clan, who, as one of them wrote, were determined to become a "little faithful band of love and duty," guided by affection, responsibility, and a deep respect for learning. They pledged to stick by one another through thick and thin, to recognize their God but always tolerate others, and to improve themselves and the world around them. The book becomes a history of religious expression, doubt, and searching as the family sought to find a meaningful and appropriate expression of Judaism in the context of their lives while attempting to assimilate as patriots and as Southerners. Bingham offers an exceptional panorama of one family's effort to belong and to succeed. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 380 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (April 16, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809027569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809027569
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,135,926 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing August 24, 2003
By A Customer
I picked up Emily Bingham's book Mordecai An Early American Family while visiting my son and daughter-in-law. My intent was to give the book a quick glance and set it aside. By the end of the first chapter I was engrossed in the story of the Mordecai family, its hopes, its dreams, its successes, its failures. The family was depicted as tightly knit unit. Daughters were as well educated as sons. All worked together for the good of the family. Ms. Bingham's discussion of the family's struggles to maintain their Jewish faith and worship in the absence of a supportive Jewish community challenged me to reflect upon my response given similar circumstances. Rachel's conflict between Judaism and Christianity was poignant. From start to finish I found Mordecai absorbing and thought provoking.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bingham's MORDECAI--An American Jewish Saga July 3, 2003
Emily Bingham's biography of the Mordecais is beautifully researched and written. Thanks to the family's voluminous journals, letters, books, and diaries--and to Bingham's graceful style--we have a family history that compels us to keep turning the pages.
Three generations of Mordecais come alive, shedding light upon the complex history of the Southern Jewish experience. Among many individuals who stand out, perhaps the most unforgettable are Alfred, accepted at West Point at a time (the mid 1800s) when few Jews even applied, and Rachel, whose story would itself be a fascinating biography. Their relationship to their Jewish heritage--and the uses they put it to--are important additions to the story of other ethnic groups and their struggle to assimilate while still maintaining their identity.
Emily Bingham's solid scholarship and broad knowledge of the era she writes about make MORDECAI a fascinating biography of a people and a time.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emily Bingham knows the Mordecais July 14, 2003
By A Customer
While others have been captured by their story, there is no other scholar who has put as much time and thought into the fascinating lives of the Mordecai family, nor is there anyone else who has written about them with such care and obvious attention to detail. This is, indeed, an American family, and through their lives Bingham escorts the reader through many of nineteenth century America's most divisive and troubling dilemmas, while demonstrating the power of kinship to unite loved ones through such a whirlwind of influences.
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