In the Niagara River between Buffalo, New York, and Canada sits Grand Island. On a pedestal at Grand Island Town Hall sits a cornerstone engraved with the Shema in Hebrew and the following inscription:
A City of Refuge for the Jews
Founded by Mordecai Manuel Noah in the month of Tizri 5586
Sept. 1825 and in the 50th Year of American Independence
What was this place, Ararat, and who was Mordecai Manuel Noah?
Born in Philadelphia in 1785 to German-Jewish and Sephardic parents, Noah pursued simultaneous careers in journalism and politics. At age 26, Noah petitioned Secretary of State Robert Smith to grant him a consular position, with a not-so-subtle reminder that the appointment of a Jew to the diplomatic corps would favorably impress Jewish voters and “prove to foreign powers that our government is not regulated in the appointment of their officers by religious distinction.” Noah was subsequently appointed as consul to Riga and then Tunis. Later, Noah was elected sheriff of New York City, appointed surveyor of the city’s port and made a judge of its Court of General Sessions. His position as editor of six different secular New York newspapers over the years assured him of a platform.
In the Ararat project, Noah’s service to world Jewry and his personal advancement came together as he proclaimed the Zionist future. (Noah may well have chosen the name because Ararat was the mountain where Noah’s Ark landed in the biblical story.)
Noah declared in 1818:
“Never were prospects for the restoration of the Jewish nation to their ancient rights and dominion more brilliant than they are at present. There are seven million of Jews . . . throughout the world . . . possessing more wealth, activity, influence, and talents, than any body of people of their number on earth. . .they will march in triumphant numbers, and posses themselves once more of [Palestine], and take their rank among the governments of the earth.”
In 1820, he began private negotiations to purchase Grand Island, then completely undeveloped, as a temporary “New Jerusalem” where Jews could safely await repossession of their ancient Holy Land.
Grand Island stood where the Erie Canal, then under construction, would enter the Niagara River. Noah hoped to attract Jewish merchants and bankers from France and Germany who would see the commercial opportunities in the project and Eastern European Jews who sought farmland. After five years, Noah finally raised the funds to purchase a portion of the island for his colony.
Had Noah simply sought to re-sell land on Grand Island to his co-religionists, he would have differed little from other land speculators of his time. However, Noah had far more grandiose ambitions than mere profit, as the inaugural ceremonies at Ararat revealed.
To accommodate the large inaugural crowd, Noah rented a Buffalo church. Cannoneers fired a salute and Seneca Chief Red Jacket arrived by boat (Noah was convinced that America’s Indians were the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel). Then Noah made his theatrical entrance. Historian Jonathan Sarna describes Noah’s dramatic garb:
“Resplendent in a Richard III costume, complete with a gold medallion neck chain–all lent by the Park Theater–Noah assumed his role as [self-proclaimed] “Judge of Israel.”
After an ecumenical service led by a Protestant minister, Noah issued his “Proclamation to the Jews,” which established Ararat as a city of Jewish refuge, proclaimed the government of “the Jewish Nation under the auspices and protection of the constitution and laws of the United States of America and declared Noah’s status as a ‘Judge of Israel.'” Noah called on each Jew in the world to be taxed “three sheckels of silver” to support the government of the Jewish Nation, and for the Paris Jewish Consistory to elect a Judge of Israel every four years–after Noah had finished his self-appointed term.
Noah’s presumption caused a firestorm of protest and ridicule, not least from some fellow Jews. Isaac Harby, a Jewish newspaper editor in Charleston, accused Noah of arrogating the role of the authentic Messiah, who some day would “lead [the Jewish people] to New Jerusalem and not to New York.” The secular press labeled Noah an opportunistic land speculator attempting to defraud his co-religionists of their savings.
In the end, Ararat failed to attract any settlers. Apparently, in a democratic society with an open frontier, no European or American Jew felt the need to live as Noah’s colonist. Because he could not afford recruiters abroad, Noah’s colony had little chance of attracting European Jewry. Worse, the grand rabbi of Paris ridiculed Noah’s plan. Before the end of 1825, Noah was advising his friends not to invest in Ararat; in 1833, his share of unpopulated Grand Island was sold to a timber investor.
All that remains of Noah’s dream today is Ararat’s cornerstone. Despite the fiasco, Noah continued as an influential spokesperson for American Jewry. Almost 175 years later, much of his vision has come to fruition. Noah’s assertions that a Jewish nation must be reestablished in the Holy Land and that America must play a special part in that restoration foreshadowed the role of American Jewry in the 20th-century development of Jewish nationhood.
Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.