A Different Kind of Noah: Opening the Letters of the Soul

A Different Kind of Noah: Opening the Letters of the Soul [1]

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Dream: The island was a land mass, eight miles long and six miles wide, located in the Niagara River near Buffalo. [1] The idea, with the blessing of the State of New York, was to create a temporary homeland for the persecuted Jews of the world under American protection. It was to be called Ararat (symbolizing Noah’s Ark, which some believe to be stranded atop Mount Ararat)….It was 1820.

Our dreams are pointers to our future. In that sense, we should believe in them. At the age pf 72, I had a dream – a dream about becoming a rabbi. It seemed an impossible accomplishment at my age – especially since I had still to learn the Hebrew language — yet seven years of dedicated study later, I was ordained as a rabbi in Los Angeles.

According to the Sages in the Talmud, “it is an open question as to whether dreams have a validity” (Stone Bible, quoting Berachot 55a). But in the same section (Berachot 55a), Rav Hisda tells us that a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. Dreams are the unopened letters of the soul. If we have the courage to open them, they point to the paths we need to follow – our soul paths – if only we can find the moral strength to do it. However, dreams, the Talmud cautions, are 1/60th of prophecy. That still gives us 59/60ths to fulfill. It takes a lot of hard work!

A Spiritual Home

Did you ever hear of Mordecai Immanuel Noah (a different Noah from the biblical one)? Few people today have. Although he was not so recognized, he was actually the very first Zionist. He pre-dated Theodore Herzl – usually credited with being with being the Father of Zionism – by a century.  Mordecai Noah was not afraid to follow his dreams, not even a dream that seemed impossible at the time, but was based on an ancient promise – the promise of Va’era when God appears and says to the ancient Hebrews: “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God….I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord” (Exodus 6:6-9). And, believing in the promise, Mordecai Immanuel Noah opened the letter of his dream.

A Preliminary Refuge

Mordecai Noah believed sincerely that the Jews needed to leave the lands of their persecution, the lands where they lived in ghettos, and worse, with continual terror and death a ruler’s whim away. They needed to pursue the goal – the never-forgotten dream – of living once again in their spiritual home, Eretz Israel, as Jews. Yet because, at that time, there were no political barriers to that dream, Mordecai Noah envisioned a preliminary Promised Land, a temporary refuge until the time was right to settle in Israel. And that first place of refuge was to be an island with a small native population off the East Coast – near Buffalo, N.Y. — of the United States.

Who was Mordecai Noah?

So who was this Mordecai Noah? And where was that preliminary Zion? First of all, he was an American, born in 1765 in Philadelphia, and the son of Spanish-Portuguese Marrano (secret Jews) immigrants to Georgia in the New World. He was smart, seemingly well-off, well mannered, well-liked, well-connected, and with such a vibrant personality that he rose – a Jew in the latter part of the 18th century – to be appointed American Consul to Turkey.

While redeeming American hostages with great panache from Barbary Coast pirates –with such over-enthusiastic vigor, in fact, that he was eventually recalled to the U.S. – he saw many cruelties that disturbed him. Especially, during his time in that region, he was deeply saddened by the deplorable conditions in which the Jews of that area lived. He had been brought up as a free American. He had never seen anything like it. And, using his diplomatic know-how and political connections – among them his relationship with Andrew Jackson’s daughter, whom he married, planting him firmly among the Jacksonians – he decided to do something about it.

James Madison Granted Charter

It took Mordecai Noah until 1820. He was fifty-five. By then, this very able, extremely theatrical, master politician had mustered enough support to persuade the then Governor of New York State, James Madison, to grant him a charter to purchase large tracts of Grand Island (a former Canadian possession then ceded to New York State.

This island was a land mass, eight miles long and six miles wide, located in the Niagara River near Buffalo. [1] The idea, with the blessing of the State of New York, was to create a temporary homeland for the persecuted Jews of the world under American protection. It was to be called Ararat (symbolizing Noah’s Ark, which some believe to be stranded atop Mount Ararat) – and given Noah’s last name and his considerable ego, he promoted the comparison. He was saving the Jews from persecution.

Economic Prospects: The Erie Canal

It wasn’t all philanthropy. Since the Erie Canal was about to be opened, the location and development of Grand Island offered great economic prospects, both for the Jews who would settle there and develop it, and for the State of New York.

In this enterprise, Mordecai Noah had both the enthusiastic financial backing of devout Christians and the supportive participation of Grand Island’s Seneca Indian population, a peaceful tribe. (Mordecai Noah believed that the American Indians were lost tribes of Israel, and the native population liked that idea. Grand Island was also intended to be a refuge for them against discrimination, and he would bring them prosperity.

But No Jews…

At the time, the Indians were all for it. In fact, the only people who did not support this enterprise were the rabbis of the Jewish communities of the world, who refused completely to send any representatives to the dedication ceremony.

The Indians were there at the ceremony, which took place on the mainland, dressed in full ceremonial attire. All the politicians were there, prepared to endorse the endeavor, as well as the enthusiastic Christians who had lent the money to buy the land. Mordecai Noah was there, prepared to preside over Grand Island as a judge, just like in biblical days, to get things started.

With his theatrical panache, he was dressed in ceremonial robes (rented from a costumer). The boats were all there ready to transport the invited guests to the island, despite the unexpectedly stormy weather. The only people who weren’t there were the Jews, whose rabbis had been invited from all over Europe.

The island was too small to accommodate all the Jews of the world, the rabbis. And who wanted to live in an undeveloped wilderness? And, most important, the Messiah hadn’t come yet. So despite the fact that Grand Island offered a beautiful refuge with a temperate climate, it wasn’t Eretz Israel. And despite the fact that Mordecai Noah explained that the refuge was planned to be temporary in nature – until one day they could move safely to the Holy Land, nevertheless, for the rabbis, it was Israel or bust. They had no idea that a Holocaust would decimate the European Jewish communities in the twentieth century.  If it wasn’t Israel, the rabbis declared, not a single Jew except for Mordecai Noah was coming to the dedication. Nevertheless, the dedication ceremony did take place, and the cornerstone still rests today in Grand Island’s museum.

Mordecai Noah was born just after the close of the first American Revolution. He died in 1851, a few years before the Civil War – the War Between the States – began. When he died, he was still a dedicated Zionist. But he had come to the realization in the thirty years after the Grand Island venture failed in its intent, that, for the Jews of the world, Zion had to be in Israel [3].

As for me, born in the middle of the 1930s depression and writing this is 2017, Israel is the land of my spiritual heritage as a Jew, the opened letter of the Jewish soul so long repressed, one-sixtieth of prophecy in a time frame beyond our human comprehension. It is our hope, perhaps the hope of all mankind. There is a lot of work to do.

[1] When I first heard of Mordecai Noah’s story, I was so intrigued that I considered making his efforts – and Grand Island – the topic of my rabbinic thesis. However, when I explored this theme further, I discovered that a Ph.D. student at Cornell University had already written a doctoral dissertation about Mordecai Noah, Cornell holds many of the authentic documents relating to Grand Island, some of which are available online. So instead I wrote about finding hope in the stories of the Talmud. Its academic title is “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud.”

[2] By comparison, the island of Montreal is 31 miles long and 9.9 miles wide at its widest point.

[3] There have been many suggestions of alternate refuges for the Jews over the years, usually in places of extreme climate – Uganda, the Arctic, Canada, even Arizona before air-condition. Some people believe that America is the “Goldene Medina” (i.e., the Promised Land), so why do we need Israel? Other people think that the Promised Land is a metaphor, an ideal to hold in our hearts, that it doesn’t need a location – but unfortunately, history has taught us that it is impossible to flee to a metaphor when you have no place else to go.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017.

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