The values of the American Revolution—liberty, freedom, and democracy—profoundly affected the Jewish community. Having successfully rebelled against the authority of England and its king, many early American Jews no longer submitted unquestioningly to any authorities, even religious ones. Like their Protestant and Catholic contemporaries, they insisted upon the right to make decisions, including marital decisions, for themselves.
One of those who challenged religious authority in the early years of the republic was Jacob I. Cohen (1744–1823), an immigrant from Oberdorf, Bavaria, who arrived in America in 1773. Cohen settled first in Lancaster, Pa., where he received a license to trade with the Indians, and then moved to Charleston, S.C. During the American Revolution, he opposed the British, and was one of a group of Jews who fought in 1779 under Captain Richard Lushington as part of the Charleston regiment known as the “Jew Company,” although only a minority of its members was actually Jewish. Cohen himself fought in the Battle of Beaufort under General William Moultrie and, according to Lushington, “in every respect conducted himself as a good soldier and a man of courage.”
By 1781 Cohen was in Richmond, Va., having formed a partnership with his fellow militia veteran, Isaiah Isaacs. The two established the commercial firm of Cohen & Isaacs, locally known as “The Jews’ Store.” Subsequently, it expanded to include a tavern inn, known as “The Bird in the Hand,” as well as assorted other properties.
A year after the original store’s founding, in 1782, Cohen traveled to Philadelphia on a prolonged buying trip, and in May of that year he applied to join Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue. Having established himself in business, he may also have been looking around for a wife: He was, after all, 38 years old and still single. Within three months he had fallen in love with a recently widowed woman of his own age, Esther Mordecai, whose husband had died leaving her impoverished and with three children. Since Esther Mordecai had applied to the congregation for nine pounds to pay her rent, the community had reason to be especially gladdened by this turn of events; the match likely seemed providential.
But then a problem arose: for Esther Mordecai was a convert to Judaism. Her original name was Elizabeth Whitlock, and she had converted as a teenager to marry her much older first husband, Moses Mordecai. Who converted her and where she was converted remains uncertain, but few at the time seem to have doubted the legitimacy of her conversion. The real problem was that the marriage of a kohen, a Jew of priestly descent, to a convert is explicitly prohibited by halacha (Jewish law); a kohen may only marry the daughter of a Jew. In much of the Jewish world, this obstacle would almost certainly have doomed the match, no matter how extenuating the circumstances.
What is therefore remarkable, and extremely revealing, is that Cohen proved defiant. Although informed of the law, he spurned it. Why, he must have wondered, should he be denied the right to marry a convert to Judaism just because his ancestors had been descendants of Aaron, the high priest? The dictates of the synagogue and of Jewish law ran counter to his newfound sense of democracy and freedom.
Nor was he alone. According to the laconic minutes of the congregation, “great while was spent in debating” the marriage—a sure sign of communal restiveness. In the end, Congregation Mikveh Israel prohibited its clergy from conducting the marriage or even from mentioning the couple’s name within the synagogue’s portals. Interestingly, stricter punishments, which some proposed, were voted down.
The response on the part of Cohen and his friends was a public act of defiance. The congregation’s leading member, Haym Salomon, along with the Revolutionary War hero Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah, Ga., and the well-respected old-time Philadelphian, Israel Jacobs, privately conducted and witnessed the wedding ceremony. The ketubah (wedding document) survives, and the copy in the American Jewish Archives makes clear that the officiants acted in conscious awareness of what they were doing. Esther Mordecai is described in the Aramaic ketubah as an armalta giyorret—“a widow and convert”—and her husband is listed as Yaakov Ben Reb Yehoshua Hacohen, Jacob, the son of Joshua the priest. The three highly respected signatories on the document, having been apprised of Jewish law, thus knowingly placed personal liberty above its dictates. In performing this wedding in the face of the synagogue’s objections, they served notice that times had changed and that the congregation’s power to regulate Jewish life was waning. In free America, Jewish religious authority would heavily depend upon the consent of the governed.
Jacob and Esther returned to Richmond, prospered, and became active in Jewish life. Jacob helped to found Virginia’s first synagogue, Beth Shalome of Richmond, and made liberal donations to the synagogue, including valuable ritual objects.
Esther died in 1804, and within two years her husband returned to Philadelphia. There he married Rachel Jacobs (Polack), a widow and a descendant of the first Jews in Savannah. This halachically acceptable marriage restored him to the good graces of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, and in a few years he became the congregation’s president. The congregation, in electing him, chose to overlook his earlier challenge to its religious authority. In a free country, yesterday’s rebels can become tomorrow’s leaders.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His many books include “American Judaism: A History,” the new “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” (co-edited with Adam Mendelsohn), and “When Grant Expelled The Jews,” to be published by Nextbook/Schocken in 2011.
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