The thing about history is that it’s the story of movements and ideas and how those ideas played out across time and space — a specific idea, that is, in a very particular time, in a very particular place.
It’s also the story of real people, identifiable human beings, whose emotions and motivations at times are much like ours, although the context in which they could feel those emotions and act on those motivations often were very different.
Laura Arnold Leibman, a historian at Reed College in Oregon, found herself intrigued by the family of the reclusive New York heiress Blanche Moses; she opens her new book, “Once We Were Slaves,” with Blanche, at 82, in 1942, looking for help with her daguerreotype collection. (She’ll talk about her book online for Rutgers’s Bildner Center; see box for details.)
Ms. Moses, ensconced in an apartment in Morningside Heights, near Columbia, was the descendant of some of the most well-known names in New York Jewish history, the Sephardic grandees who’d built Congregation Shearith Israel — the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue. That shul, the city’s oldest, moved uptown along with the community, and today it continues to flourish on Central Park West.
Isaac Moses was a Revolutionary War hero. Gershon Mendes Seixas was a pioneering religious leader. They were among Shearith Israel’s founders, and they were Blanche’s great grandfathers.
But where did her grandmother, Sarah Brandon Moses, come from? Or her brother, Isaac Lopez Brandon?
Barbados, as it turns out. They came from Barbados, lived in Surinam for a while; they were born to an enslaved African woman and her white Jewish enslaver; they were born Christian, converted to Judaism, and moved to New York, where they lived as, were perceived as, and in fact were white Jews. All those facts are true.
We tend to think of history as neater than the messy present; when we think like that, we’re wrong, as Dr. Leibman’s book demonstrates. The questions that she poses in her book — the issues that her characters confront — were pressing then and continue to be pressing now.
Dr. Leibman took 10 years to write and research this book, which started with two separate but interconnected impulses.
“I was finishing up my research on a book on messianism” — that’s “Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life,” which won a National Jewish Book award in 2013 — “and I was working in Barbados, in a slightly earlier period,” she said. “One of my friends who works on Jews in Barbados had mentioned an incident where Isaac Lopez Brandon had been part of the struggle for civil rights, and he’d been outed as a Jew of color. My friend was interested in this because of the diversity of the community — but it was before my time period.”
But Dr. Leibman always has been fascinated by material objects, and she saw miniatures of Sarah and Isaac. “That hooked me,” she said. “I started working on the civil right aspect of it, but it was the miniatures that drew me in.
“It is such an intimate genre, with those larger-than-life eyes, that are designed to draw you in, to make you feel connected. I wanted to know who these people in the miniatures were. Who is this person?”
She also was intrigued by the Sephardic community. “My husband is Sephardi by choice,” she said. “He davens in a Sephardic minyan. So I’d get questions about Sephardic Jews.” All in all, it made sense to study Blanche Moses’s background, all the way back to the islands.
At the beginning of her book, Dr. Leibman writes about what the islands were like. Everything was fluid; race, class, status. She researched it in Barbados, on Surinam, in the Netherlands and England. “There’s a lot of stuff in the archives; occasionally I’d go not expecting much, and I’d find a lot.
“There’s a way in which it’s like a detective in a cold case. There are clues spread around all over the world, in so many places.” There’s also the challenge of putting together the stories. “How do you write stories about people who don’t leave written records?”
For example, Sarah and Isaac were born Christian, but they converted to Judaism; their father was Jewish, but there were active Presbyterians in their family, and the island had a flourishing and influential Anglican community. It was one thing for Sarah to convert, but another, far more painful process for Isaac, who had to undergo circumcision. “Both the Barbadian and the Surinam records make a big deal of Isaac’s conversion,” Dr. Leibman said. “He wanted to become Jewish. They say that there were spiritual reasons. He really wanted to become Jewish, and she was along for the ride. I assume that there was some pressure from their father, who didn’t marry their mother but put a lot of financial resources into them.
“It also was a period with a lot of religious revivals, so it is not surprising. A lot of his family was very devout. It’s not surprising that he would be interested in religion, and in his father’s religion.”
That brings up another set of questions, about love. Did their father love their mother? Did their mother — who was enslaved — love their father? Could she have loved him? How did relationships like that work?
It also brings up issues of money and class. Their father was wealthy. Some of their family had been rich and became poor. Their status changed along with their finances. How did that work? How does that work?
“Their father’s will was very sweet,” Dr. Leibman said. “He has a lot of affection language for them in the will, in ways that he doesn’t for other people. He seems to be emotionally attached to them.”
Later, Dr. Leibman’s book traces the siblings’ time in America. Sarah married for love, in Paris; she had 10 children, including two sets of twins. Nine of them survived. She died at 30, right after childbirth (of course most of her married life was immediately before, during, or after childbirth, all at the same time); two of her sisters-in-law also died in childbirth, as was common for women during that pre-birth-control, pre-anti-biotic time.
When did the family lose the memory of coming from Africa? Of being Christian? Of being enslaved? “Certainly by the time Blanche was around, but I wonder about the generation before,” Dr. Leibman said. “Isaac lives until 1825. When he goes back to Barbados, he is a man of color there.” (The trip was a visit, not a permanent return. And Isaac, the man of color, was the son of a white man and a biracial woman.) “So some of the older children must at least have known, but no one was talking about it. By the time of their grandchildren’s generation, the memory is lost. But there is that interesting generation, where they don’t talk about it. Some of them know, some don’t, but they don’t talk about it.
“Sarah’s oldest child was 11 when she died. And what would Isaac’s motivation to talk about it have been?”
The understanding of Jews as less homogenous than we realize comes through in “Once We Were Slaves.” “There have been a lot of studies that show the community in the United States as being much more diverse than we realize, often because we just didn’t ask about it,” Dr. Leibman said. “Somewhere between 9 and 25% of any Jewish American community are people who are nonwhite or identify as multiracial or people of color. This history is really important for reminding us that this is a longstanding part of American Judaism from very early on. This is a story that Jews have struggled with for a long time.
“Going forward, how can we live up to ideas of inclusion? How can we see mistakes in the past and learn from them? It’s important in terms not only of expanding how we understand the past but knowing that there is a long history of diversity as a normal part of Judaism.”
Who: Dr. Laura Arnold Leibman
What Will talk about her book “Once We Were Slaves”
Where: Online, for Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life
When: On Tuesday, February 1, at 7:30 p.m.
How: Advance registration is necessary; go to BilderCenter.Rutgers.edu
How much: It’s free and open to the public