"Dust and Ashes": The Funeral and Forgetting of Sabato Morais
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“Dust and Ashes”:
The Funeral and Forgetting of Sabato Morais *

Who were those hundreds and thousands that crowded Fifth Street this afternoon for entire squares from side to side, leaving just room enough for the cars to pass? Who were those hundreds whose weary feet traveled the distance from Fifth and Green to Twelfth and Federal streets? A guard of honor it was which kings might envy. Who were they? 1

Sabato Morais remains something of a riddle to students of nineteenth-century American Jewish history, just as the phenomenon of his thousands of mourners baffled observers at his funeral in November 1897. 2 [End Page 155] We know the rough outlines of Morais’ life, 3 just as his contemporaries, of course, knew the identity of the immigrant Eastern European Jewish masses who lost a day’s pay to attend his burial that rainy Monday afternoon in Philadelphia. 4 But the Italian-born Morais, who two years after his death was memorialized by Kasriel Sarasohn’s Orthodox New York Yudishe Gazeten as “der grester fun ale ortodoksishe rabonim in [End Page 156] amerike . . . on sofek” (“without doubt . . . the greatest of all orthodox rabbis in the United States”), 5 has become almost invisible in standard accounts of the American Jewish past. As the centenary of his death approaches, this neglect is all the more surprising, given the statement by Cyrus Adler, one of American Jewry’s most visible public figures in the early twentieth century, that “to the Jews of England, France, Italy, and the Orient, [Morais] was the representative American Jew.” 6 The New York Times remembered Morais as “the most eminent rabbi in this country . . . a powerful and aggressive factor in discussions of vast import and interest to millions of people; a deep, incisive, fearless thinker, speaker, and writer.” 7 Moshe Davis declared in 1947, fifty years after Morais’ death, that “a volume on Sabato Morais, his life and times, is a desideratum in American Jewish history.” 8 Despite this high estimation of Morais by his contemporaries and by Davis, the call for such a publication went unanswered. In a recent survey of scholarly [End Page 157] opinions about the “Greatest American Jewish leaders” in American Jewish History, Morais did not merit a single mention. 9

Why has the memory of this once renowned figure suffered so deeply the passage of time? To put the question more broadly, what is the process by which a particular figure or event comes to occupy a central or peripheral place in the history and memory of a particular ethnic group? Is it useful to speak of an American Jewish ethnic memory? If so, how is contemporary ethnic remembering entwined with the activity of history writing, and what role, if any, does gender play in the politics of forgetting? The following discussion will reopen the issue of Morais’ legacy—the world from which he came, his life and times, his unprecedented funeral and subsequent scholarly neglect—as part of a preliminary effort to map a process of forgetting in the broader context of a particular transitional moment in the history of American Jewry. 10

Sabato Morais was born on April 13, 1823 in Livorno (or Leghorn, as English sailors called it), just south of Pisa on the western coast of the northern Italian duchy of Tuscany. Sabato was the third of nine children, with one younger brother and seven sisters. He was raised “in quite humble circumstances” and educated in Livorno. 11 Morais’ father Samuel descended from Portuguese Marranos who arrived in London in the 1650s, perhaps from colonial Brazil, and settled in Livorno around 1730. Sabato’s mother Buonina Wolf was of German-Ashkenazic origin and it was she who decisively influenced her young son to pursue his religious vocation. Both Morais’ father and his paternal grandfather [End Page 158] Sabato, after whom he was named, were Freemasons and immersed in rebellion spurred by the Napoleonic invasion in June 1796. “It was [Sabato, the paternal grandfather] who instilled a feeling for liberty into his compatriots. It was he who exclaimed ‘Up for liberty; down with tyrants . . . [and] in his son Samuel Morais was found a devoted Republican, a man...