On the very last page of his Major Noah ( 1938), Isaac Goldberg sought to discourage scholars from consulting contemporary newspapers about the subject of his work. "There will be very little use in such consultation," he solemnly advised. In a sense, his words are my point of departure.
I discovered a new and different Mordecai Noah in contemporary letters and newspapers. He was not the trivial "Major" of Goldberg's book, the impractical dreamer of so many other accounts, or the "curious, pompous, likeable combination of contradictions" described by Lee Friedman. Instead, the Mordecai Noah of this book is a highly significant figure on the American scene, a leader of the American Jewish community, and most important, the first man in history to confront and grapple boldly with the tensions between these two distinct roles.
My interest in Noah stems from the belief that, through his life, much can be learned about the American Jewish experience in general. The tensions which he sought to resolve are tensions which are rooted in American Jewish history. More broadly, they are the tensions faced by all minority groups which seek to preserve a measure of their identity while integrating into a larger, and at times hostile, mass society. Thus, Noah's "search for synthesis" should not be seen as an obscure or purely personal search. It is the same search conducted, in other forms, by millions of people in all comers of the world.
Yet, to view Noah only in a Jewish or a minority group context is not to see the man as he lived or as he saw himself. He was, by birth and temperament, quintessentially American. His contributions to American diplomacy, journalism, politics, and drama; his views on immigration, slavery, and other vital issues of the day; and his relations with the major figures of the Jacksonian period must all be understood in their American context. Otherwise, they can scarcely be understood at all.
The life of Mordecai Noah is part of a larger story, one which might be titled, "The Making of the American Jew." Somehow, in their 325 years in America, American Jews have become a unique community—different from other Americans, different from other Jews. The forces that shaped these American Jews were, I think, many of the same forces that shaped Mordecai Noah. To understand Noah is to begin to understand the process which transformed radically dissimilar Jews, from very different backgrounds, into the vibrant and creative American Jewish community of today.