Off the Shelf: Black and a slave, white and a Jew

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One fascinating section of Laura Arnold Leibman’s “The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects” discussed an ivory miniature portrait, and the life, of Sarah Brandon Moses. (See The Reporter’s review of the book here.) The parents of Moses and her brother, Isaac Brandon, were never married: their mother was a slave of African descent and their father a Sephardic Jew. In the early part of their lives, the two children were Christian and slaves. The story of how they converted to Judaism and were later legally labeled as white is the subject of Leibman’s excellent history “Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family” (Oxford University Press). 

Moses and Brandon were born (1798 and 1792 respectively) in Barbados, an island that included a Jewish population made up mostly of Jews who’d escaped from Portugal and the Inquisition. Many of these Sephardic Jews emigrated to the West Indies to take part in the sugar trade. It wasn’t long, however, before British planters sought to limit their success: they passed legislation limiting the number of slaves Jews could own. Since it was impossible at that time to run a sugar plantation without slaves, most Jews became merchants or shopkeepers. That doesn’t mean they didn’t own slaves: the cultural norms of the time took slavery as a given.

Although their father Abraham Rodrigues Brandon never married their mother (Sarah) Esther Lopez Gill, he didn’t abandon his children. (Leibman notes that Gill is referred to in records as both Sarah and Esther; to avoid confusing her with her daughter, she placed her first name in parentheses.) The first step Brandon took was to have his children freed from slavery. That was a complex process because he didn’t own them, and their owner, Hannah Esther Lopez, was hindered by the fact that women were unable to legally free a slave without the aid of a man. To get around this fact, Lopez indentured the children to their father, which meant that if she died before they could be freed, they would belong to their father. After some missteps, Sarah and Isaac were finally freed in May 1801. It’s important to note that Sarah’s papers included a phrase noting that any children she had would also be free, something not to be taken for granted. 

Due to prejudice in the Jewish community of Barbados, Sarah and Isaac traveled to Suriname in 1811 for their conversion. The divide in the community was not only based on race: Jews of Portuguese descent held a higher place in society. In order to make certain that Sarah would be able to take her place in society, she was sent to London after her conversion to attend an exclusive Jewish school. As Leibman notes, “For a former slave and convert like Sarah Rodrigues Brandon, this education would have been almost as crucial to becoming a full member of the Jewish community as her conversion and early training in Suriname. London was the perfect place for Sarah to learn how to become part of upper-class Jewish society. An upscale education would place Sarah among the Jewish peers she would later be able to rely on to smooth her way in the Americas.” 

In 1817, Sarah married Joshua Moses in England and soon after the two moved to New York City. In 1820, Isaac and their mother moved to Philadelphia. The family connections helped: Isaac married Joshua’s sister, Lavinia, and also moved to New York City. It was there that the Rodrigues came to be classified as white. When the 1820 census was taken, those of mixed race could still be considered white. Leibman notes that, during this census, “Jews in the United States were described as white by census takers regardless of whether they were Sephardic or Askenazi, unless they had obvious African ancestry.” There was no guarantee, though, that Sarah would be accepted as white. The census taker did label the complete household white except for one “free colored female.” The result of this is that all the descendants of the family would be considered white in future censuses.

When Isaac applied for American citizenship, the question of his race was raised. By 1802, only “free white people” could become citizens. Leibman notes that there is no record of whether Isaac thought of himself as white or if he just wanted others to consider him so. Whatever his personal thoughts, one of his brothers-in-law, Moses L. Moses, swore about Isaac’s good character and that he had fulfilled the residency requirements. His in-laws also helped him find acceptance in Shearith Israel, the synagogue to which the Moses family belonged. In their records, there is no mention of his conversion to Judaism, something that was noted about Sarah when she and her husband joined the synagogue.

Leibman writes that the acceptance of Blacks and mixed race Jews was not universal. Many Jews owned slaves; others who freed their slaves still made them serve as indentured servants. Not everyone would accept members whose parents had not been married; that included a refusal to allow a Jewish marriage even after the non-Jewish partner converted. Shearith Israel seems more liberal than many others; Isaac found more acceptance there than the synagogue in Barbados to which he’d failed to obtain full membership. 

This summary of “Once We Were Slaves” doesn’t do justice to this complex and intriguing work. Readers may discover parts of American and Jewish history with which they were unfamiliar, including the 1741 slave rebellion in New York City and the backlash that followed; the 1819 yellow fever epidemic, during which large sections of the city were fenced off in order to prevent the spread of the disease; and the large number of children raised Jewish whose fathers were free men and whose mothers were slaves. Leibman’s prose is dry; she is writing a scholarly work, rather than a popular history. The similarity in the names of the people she discusses makes it easy to confuse their relationships, thought the family trees at the end of the work do help. That shouldn’t deter readers interested in Jewish history in the Caribbean or 1800s America, though: they will want to add this engrossing work to their bookshelves.