Academic journal article Shofar

Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer

Academic journal article Shofar

Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer

Article excerpt

Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer, by C. S. Monaco. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. 240 pp. $44.95.

Students of the American past are increasingly being urged to heed the call of "trans-Atlantic history," to enlarge their subject beyond passport control by letting their own particular sub-fields-whether it be slavery or ideas-lap upon the shores of Africa and Europe. One apt response to this professional appeal has come from an independent scholar rather than an academician. The title of C. S. Monaco's biography of Moses Elias Levy (1782-1854) implies a cramped geographic scope that is belied by the restlessness of a life so extraordinary that reviewers of this book will undoubtedly be compelled to describe it as "colorful." Moses Levy of Florida begins in Morocco, and then nimbly follows Levy from Gibraltar to the West Indies, from the antebellum South to imperial London, and then back to Florida as it emerged from primitive near-isolation into statehood.

Levy is best known for his initiative in establishing a Jewish agricultural colony in Florida called Pilgrimage, the first communitarian settlement in American Jewish history. Pilgrimage lasted thirteen years. But its founder was more than a dimly-remembered body double to Mordecai Manuel Noah (whose "Ararat" was even more of a flame-out). A year before David Walker's fiery Appeal in Four Articles (1829) demanding an end to slavery was published in Boston, Levy's emancipatory Plan for the Abolition of Slavery appeared-anonymously, to be sure, and in London rather than in the U.S. Such radical sentiments did not prevent Levy from owning bondsmen himself (though he apparently treated them humanely). A canny and energetic entrepreneur, he took big risks in the shipping business, operating in St. Thomas, Curaçao, and Cuba. Hoping to grow sugar cane in East Florida, Levy discovered that he had "embarked myself in a wild country peopled with wolves instead of men" (quoted on p. 99). Anyone who wanted to lure his co-religionists into such a territory so as to avoid antisemitism was either a fool or a messianist, and Monaco shows how deeply Levy expected a colony like Pilgrimage to hasten the moment of redemption. He was more a dreamer than a schemer, more attentive to the End of Days than to the bottom line. But success in business did enable Levy to parlay a respectable place in British society into open and vigorous advocacy of Jewish legal rights and civic claims-whether in behalf of English or Russian Jewry. Such political action antedated by over three decades the formation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (1860), much less the American Jewish Committee (1906).

Prior to the publication of Moses Levy of Florida, anyone interested in this unusual yet admirable career had to start and virtually end with Leon Huhner's article on Levy, which appeared in 1941 in the Florida Historical Quarterly, plus a very few other pieces devoted to Pilgrimage. Monaco's extensive research has been even more impressive, however, having gained access to two dozen archival collections (from St. Augustine to Seville, from Harvard to Havana). Such is his diligence and scrupulousness that this biography won't be superseded. By retracing Levy's versatile and visionary career every step of the way, the author has portrayed an international Jew not exactly aligned with his own time-a little too much of an anticlerical rationalist to be comfortable with the romantic religious awakenings that had buried the Enlightenment, a little too proud of his Jewishness to share his co-religionists' yearning for acceptance in societies that resented "clannishness," a little too philanthropic to be satisfied, for example, with the acquisitive aspirations of the commercial elite of the Caribbean that welcomed him into its ranks. …

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