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  • Messianism, Secrecy, Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life by Laura Arnold Leibman
  • William Pencak (bio)
Messianism, Secrecy, Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life. By Laura Arnold Leibman. London and Portland, Or.: Vallentine Mitchell, 2012. xxviixxvii + 388388 pp.

When I read on the dust jacket that the doyen of American Jewish historians, Jonathan Sarna, considered this "the most innovative, ambitious and important study of Early American Jewry to appear in the last forty years," and that early American scholar David S. Shields called it "an essential book recovering the founding Jewish contribution to the intellectual history of the Americas," I was never more eager to read a book. I was not disappointed. If anything, I wish I could offer even more superlatives. If there were a Nobel Prize for Jewish historical writing, Laura Arnold Leibman should receive it.

What Leibman has done is examine the material culture and connections among transatlantic Jewish Atlantic communities from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. She focuses primarily on Amsterdam, Newport, Rhode Island, Curaçao, and Suriname, but she also incorporates London, Recife, New York, Barbados, and Jamaica, among others. Each chapter offers astonishing insights. "Friendly Piranhas" disposes of the myth that Jewish women took their purifying baths in piranha-filled streams or cold northern waters. Elaborate mickva'ot existed in both North and South America, where Jewish women could control their bodies and establish their Jewish identity in a sexually exclusive atmosphere. Similarly, the disproportionate contingents of Jewish men in Masonic lodges enabled Jews to revalue positively the Jewish reputation for covert identities and secrecy, also manifested by the publication of [End Page 329] eighteenth-century novels about Jewish spies, brought about by the need first to live under and then to escape the Inquisition.

Taking issue with the standard interpretation that North American Jewry became increasingly rational, ritualistic, and assimilated in the eighteenth century, Leibman effectively shows, both in literature and art, how Atlantic World Jews were heavily influenced by Messianic thought and the Kabbalah. She is expert in showing the "double meanings" of Jewish art and texts, characteristic of Jewish religious life since rabbis began to explore the secrets of the Torah in Biblical times, when the higher meaning was only made known to those who could be trusted to preserve the faith. By reexamining the sermon Rabbi Haym Carigal gave in Newport in 1773, she shows it followed a traditional rather than a modern form and did not endorse colonial resistance to Britain. That would have been foolish, as the Jews of Newport, like New York, were about equally divided between loyalists and patriots, unlike those of Savannah, Charleston, and Philadelphia, who overwhelmingly favored the Revolution.

Three of the book's most fascinating chapters concern "Black Jews," "The World to Come," and "Soul Food." Here Leibman shows how demographic and economic conditions affected the way the Jews' slaves, especially children and mistresses, were never quite incorporated fully into the Jewish religion. In Suriname, male Jews were a small and wealthy plantation-owning minority who far outnumbered Jewish women. They ritualized their relationships with black concubines and frequently created families with legal status. In Curaçao, male Jews were merchants and outnumbered women nearly three to one. Transracial family relationships were still possible, but less likely. In Newport, Jewish-black relations were not recognized at all, in keeping with the ban on interracial sexual activity in British North America. Nevertheless, in all three towns, Jews placed racial superiority over conversion. Potential black converts were never fully acknowledged as Jews and were buried in separate graveyards. Jews also worried and argued about which Jews would ascend to heaven. Some forgave apostates as acting under duress where the Inquisition reigned, but others remained instransigent, insisting migration was the only alternative if rites could not be practiced in secret. Finally, "Soul Food"—that is, keeping kosher—held Jews throughout the Atlantic World together because it was frequently hard to get the right sort of food processed or slaughtered correctly. Food, like intermarriage, similar rituals, and commonly shared texts, was a means of preserving international community.

Historians of the British Atlantic have not been particularly interested in Judaism...