In 1815 or ’16, an anonymous artist in London created a miniature portrait in ivory of a Jewish teen named Sarah, who wears the kind of dress and hairstyle familiar from Jane Austen novels.
It turns out there is very little else familiar in the story of Sarah Brandon Moses – or at least familiar in the conventional ways many of us tend to think about race, class and Jewish identity.
In her new book “The Art of the Jewish Family” (University of Chicago Press), historian Laura Arnold Leibman unravels the complex family tree of Moses, who was born enslaved to a Sephardic Jewish family, converted to Judaism and eventually married into the upper ranks of New York’s Jewish community in the early 1800s.
Sarah’s story is one of five told by Leibman in her book, which examines objects owned by Jewish women who lived in New York in the years between 1750 and 1850. Each object reveals something about the status of Jewish women in pre-Civil War America, but it is Sarah’s biography that seems particularly relevant at a time when Jews of color have become insistent on their rightful place in Jewish life.
“Today, a lot of times we say that the story of Jews of color is something that began in the 1970s. It is so important to go back and tell those earlier stories,” Leibman, a professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, said in a Zoom interview. ”Otherwise it is a secret that falls out of the discussion, as opposed to saying this is part of the American story and Jews of color have been important to synagogues for a long time.”
Sarah Brandon’s story begins in the British colony of Barbados, where she was born in 1798. Her father, Abraham Rodrigues Brandon, was a well-to-do merchant who would become the wealthiest Jew on the island. Her mother and grandmother were enslaved to another Jewish family in Bridgetown, who were friends to Brandon. “Female slave owners often lent out their female slaves for sexual purposes,” said Leibman. “He might be thought of as the rapist; what we know is that he and the mother have a long-term relationship,” although they never marry.
With her African ancestry, Sarah would have been considered “colored” or “mulatto,” although such categories will prove to be remarkably fluid. The “Portuguese” Jews of Barbados, as the Sephardic community was called, were apparently tolerant of community members sleeping and bearing children with non-Jewish slaves. Abraham Rodrigues Brandon was a member of the Ma’amad, the council of community elders, and even served as the Parnass, or president, of the local synagogue.
In 1801, her father took Sarah to the Anglican church – where she had been baptized as an infant — and sets her free. Her status improves yet again when her mother’s father, who is also white and Anglican, dies and leaves a house to his children of color. Sarah’s mother is not only freed but inherits slaves of her own.
Sarah and her siblings were relatively comfortable but still on the outskirts of the Jewish community of Barbados, which would not allow people of color to convert and join the Nação, or nation. Fed up, in 1811 or 1812 her brother Isaac Lopez Brandon leads the family to Suriname, the Dutch colony off the northeastern coast of South America then controlled by the British. Living there is a substantial community of freed people of color who are also Jews according to halachah, or Jewish law. The synagogue there records Sarah and her brother not just as converts but as Portuguese Jews, just like their father.
Her conversion is another step in the reassignment of Sarah’s race according to the laws and customs of the day, when Jews occupied a middle ground between white and Black. “Sarah’s ability to be recategorized as white relies on her ability to be seen as racially ambiguous,” said Leibman. “It’s not a privilege but an opportunity.”
Her status assured, Sarah’s father sends her to an elite Sephardic boarding school south of London, where she will be groomed for marriage into Jewish society. Sarah is restyled yet again — as someone who will have servants instead of being a servant.
The restyling extends to that ivory miniature, which was made about this time. Often exchanged by paramours around the time of weddings, the tiny portraits could be more expensive than full-size oil paintings. Sarah presents in the portrait not only as a demure English Jewish woman, but as white: The artist used a technique meant to emphasize the fair skin of portrait subjects. “It imparts a sort of magical whiteness, to which Jews in general are aspiring,” said Leibman. “At this time they are racially being called into question, particularly in the Caribbean. Jewish civil rights are being obtained when free people of color are getting their rights.”
Sarah is married at 18 to a prosperous American Jew named Joshua Moses; the wedding takes place at Bevis Marks, London’s Portuguese synagogue. Despite her background, the Sephardic Sarah has a higher status than her Ashkenazi husband. As for that background, Leibman doesn’t think it would have been a secret in her world, where friends and neighbors from Barbados were familiar with her family history. Her wedding contract says “convert.” Her father’s wealth may have also quashed any gossip: Sarah came into the marriage with a £10,000 dowry, or about $30 million in current purchasing power. “She is super wealthy and she is quite beautiful,” said Leibman. “And that their children would have Sephardic ancestry is very meaningful.”
Sarah’s husband, who worked for Stephen Girard, one of the wealthiest people in America, takes her to New York, to live near his parents near the southern tip of Manhattan. She is soon pregnant and will be either pregnant or recovering from childbirth for the next 10 years, until her early death at age 30. Sarah has 10 children, including two sets of twins. Nearly all will not just survive into adulthood but thrive: One of her children will marry into the family of Gershom Mendes Seixas, the famed hazzan of Shearith Israel, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Her sons served in the Mexican-American War and became Civil War heroes. One son, Israel Moses, became a surgeon, the first former slave to graduate from what becomes Columbia Medical School (not that the administration appeared aware of the milestone). A few of her sons become presidents of Shearith Israel. Sarah’s miniature made it into the collection of the American Jewish Historical Society.
For Leibman, who is finishing a second book about Sarah and her brother Isaac, Sarah’s story speaks about race and how it is constructed and reconstructed according to time and geography. It also challenges notions of Jewish ancestry, and shows the ways Jews resemble the communities of people they lived among.
“It is important to realize that in each of the places she lived she is not alone. There are other people with mixed Jewish and African ancestry,” said Leibman. “It is an important reminder about how we create communities and what barriers get set up for people and what parts of their lives people have to leave behind. When we talk about how can we be more inclusive and welcoming, we can learn about the past and what people felt they had to leave behind to be accepted.”