Emma Mordecai of Richmond, Virginia, navigated direct challenges to her Jewish faith and to her southern ideals by remaining loyal to both. As waves of evangelical fervor engulfed her family, each member resolved personal matters of faith in different ways. Like her father Jacob Mordecai, Emma affirmed commitments to Judaism and enriched the resources of their synagogue in Richmond. She responded to the Civil War, which stirred antisemitism in the South and especially threatened Richmonders, with renewed commitments to Judaism and to the ideals of the Old South.
Emma Mordecai maintained her deep commitments to both Judaism and the ideals of the Old South, despite profound challenges to each of them. Although she was born and died in North Carolina, Emma lived most of her life in or near Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America.
One of thirteen children in the large Mordecai clan, Emma was the next to youngest, born on October 6, 1812. Her mother, Rebecca Myers Mordecai, was the second wife of Jacob Mordecai and also the younger sister of his deceased first wife, Judith. Emma’s grandfather, Moses Mordecai (1707-1781), emigrated to London from Germanic Europe between 1720 and 1730 and, in the early 1750s, married Elizabeth Whitlock (1744-1804), who changed her name to Esther upon her conversion to Judaism before marriage.
By 1756, Moses and Esther Mordecai had settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They came to North America because Moses was among a contingent of convicts that included perhaps one hundred Jews, and England often encouraged convicts to relocate to its colonies. Moses likely wanted the move because Jews enjoyed greater freedom in North America than in England proper. The family quickly established itself in Philadelphia. Moses participated in the religious community gathered around the city’s sole synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (KKMI), and supported revolutionary causes. Their son, Jacob (1762-1838), attended a military school in Philadelphia and joined his fellow students as they escorted the first Continental Congress into the city.
The Family Moves South
Upon Moses’ death, Esther, with three sons to support, applied to KKMI for charity. Marriage soon solved her financial problems but also provoked a new one. Her 1782 wedding to Jacob Cohen—another immigrant from Germanic Europe—raised a furor among the congregation’s leadership. According to Jewish law (Leviticus 21:14), a cohen (priest) is forbidden to marry a convert. However, Jewish marriages do not require clergy. Esther’s marriage was solemnized and witnessed by willing fellow congregants, including the well-respected merchant Haym Salomon (1740-1785), and the couple soon moved to Richmond, Virginia. There, Cohen entered into a successful business partnership with Isaiah Isaacs. Their ability to disregard local religious authorities and to relocate without interference by religious, legal, or governmental bodies marked essential freedoms enjoyed by Jews in North America.
Jacob Mordecai married Judith Myers (1762-1796), daughter of the famed New York silversmith Myer Myers, in 1784. He managed auctions for Haym Salomon, but after Salomon’s death a year later, Jacob was adrift; ultimately, the couple settled in Warrenton, North Carolina, south of the Virginia border, where Jacob ran a small general store. Judith died shortly after the birth of her seventh child (who also quickly perished), and in 1798, Jacob married her younger sister, Rebecca Mears Myers (1776-1863).
The Only Jewish Family in Town
In small, rural Warrenton, the Mordecais—the only Jewish family in town—felt that both their economic success and their social well-being depended upon the good will they developed among their neighbors, who were also their customers. Their store remained open on Saturdays. For a time, Jacob also served as Justice of the Peace, requiring many Saturdays at the court. Judith and Jacob developed a philosophy for their family that placed intellectual development, family solidarity, and useful work above the details of Judaism’s requirements. Those values—spelled out in a letter that Jacob wrote to his children upon Judith’s death—became the ideal way to honor their mother and to keep their family together. They continued unabated after Jacob’s marriage to Rebecca and also guided the Mordecais’ family-run Female Academy.
In 1809, Jacob became proprietor of the Warrenton Female Academy, which the Raleigh Star called “an excellent seminary.” Jacob served as manager and instructor, along with his daughter Rachel and son Solomon. Daughter Ellen supervised the care of students, especially those who boarded with the family. Rebecca focused upon caring for her own seven children.
Yet, despite their effort to blend into Warrenton’s local culture, religion ultimately demanded more attention than the family creed could accommodate. Waves of evangelical fervor swept English-speaking North America from the early eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. One such enthusiasm engulfed the Mordecais. When their neighbors became personally concerned for the state of their Jewish friends’ souls, each member of the family faced the challenge directly.
Evangelical confrontations stirred Jacob to write several refutations of the claim that Jesus Christ was both the messiah predicted in the Hebrew Bible and the divine son of God. The confrontations also profoundly deepened his commitment to Judaism. Moses Mordecai had bequeathed nineteen books on Jewish topics to his son, and that collection became the foundation for Jacob’s own large library of Judaica. He became one of the most Jewishly knowledgeable Americans. Late in his life, Jacob relocated his family to Richmond and became president of the city’s oldest synagogue, K.K. Beth Shalome.
Moving to Richmond’s Jewish Community
In 1819, Jacob sold the academy and moved his family to Spring Farm, 400 acres located a few miles north of Richmond. Emma lived at the farm for her formative years, from ages seven through nineteen, when Jacob sold it and moved his family into a house in Richmond. Of the eighteen enslaved people who had labored at Mordecai’s Spring Farm, some were sold, many were hired out as contract labor, and a few served the family in Richmond. White southerners of means, the Mordecais were not unusual in their willingness to enslave Black Americans. Some of Emma’s siblings privately registered misgivings about the consequences of slavery, but none openly dissented from the racist status quo of the antebellum South. Following Nat Turner’s infamous rebellion, which led to the execution of two people enslaved in the household of his daughter Rachel, Jacob even joined a group called the Society for the Prevention of the Absconding and Abduction of Slaves.
Members of the family responded to the evangelical challenge in different ways. Rachel, the oldest, did not convert but hoped her children would do so. Ellen and George embraced Christianity but did not formalize it until after Jacob’s death. Augustus, like George, married a Christian woman and raised their children as Christians, but he never formally left Judaism.
Emma reacted to Ellen’s evangelism by reaffirming her own commitment to Judaism. “Everything I have read on either side of the question convinces me . . . of my duty to adhere to the religion of my forefathers. My mind is made up,” she wrote to Ellen in 1839. When she attended synagogue on Yom Kippur soon after writing those words, she felt firmly and enthusiastically committed to living as a Jew. Two years later, Emma founded a Sunday school for the children of Congregation Beth Shalome and served as its superintendent. Her model was the Hebrew Sunday School begun in Philadelphia in 1838 by Rebecca Gratz and other women there. The Richmond school was funded by annual balls. Although Emma never put her name to it, her family let it be known that she wrote one of the first textbooks used by the school: The Teachers’ and Parents’ Assistant; or, Thirteen Lessons Conveying to Uninformed Minds the first Ideas of God and His Attributes.
Emma never married. Although Jacob insisted that his daughters marry Jews, her brother George supported the petition of a Mr. William Grimes. But when George mysteriously withdrew his support for the match, Jacob would not acquiesce. Emma attempted suicide. For the next 41 years, she lived either the family home in Richmond or with various family members, often earning a small income as a private tutor. She remained active in her synagogue and close to nearby Jewish kinfolk.
Civil War Years
Members of the Mordecai family fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Emma, like most other southern-born white Jews, supported the Confederacy and its racist bid to preserve southern slavery. In May 1864, six months after Rebecca’s death, Emma’s older brother Samuel rented the Richmond house to an official of the Confederate government, and he and Ellen moved to George’s large North Carolina estate. Emma moved to Rosewood, the small farm belonging to her sister-in-law Rosina Young Mordecai, widow of her brother, Augustus, which abutted the former Spring Farm. Rosina and Emma had known each other most of their lives. Rosina’s three sons had joined the Confederate Army, and Rosina, with debilitating headaches and other medical problems, welcomed Emma, who could help in supervising seventeen-year-old Augusta, as well as the several enslaved people the family owned, who worked the farm and maintained the household. Emma returned to Richmond for A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover, Lit. "weeks." A one-day festival (two days outside Israel) held on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (50 days, or 7 complete weeks, from the first day of Passover) to commemorate the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Pentecost; "Festival of the First Fruits"; "Festival of the Giving of the Torah"; Azeret (solemn assembly).Shavuot, and The Jewish New Year, held on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Referred to alternatively as the "Day of Judgement" and the "Day of Blowing" (of the shofar).Rosh Ha-Shanah through The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is devoted to prayer and fasting.Yom Kippur, among other holidays, staying with her Jewish relatives in town. At Rosewood, she visited injured soldiers at a nearby Confederate hospital and spent Saturday mornings in her room, reading the Sabbath prayers from her prayer book. There, she also kept a diary. In it, she wrote personal prayers for her own safety and the triumph of the Confederacy and documented each day’s events and trials. The diary became a home for her Jewish life in a Christian household and a vehicle for documenting her emotions as the South was defeated. She mourned the onset of emancipation, bemoaning the “unaccustomed labors” she was compelled to perform while expressing a racist paternalism toward freed people. She predicted that they would “now begin to find out how easy their life as slaves has been.”
Emma remained at Rosewood even after the war ended and her nephews came home. In 1886, she returned to the diary and, discovering that several papers had crumbled away or been eaten by insects, copied the remainder into a clean, new notebook. Ten years later, she gave the work to her niece, Patty Mordecai, born only a few months before the first shots fired on Fort Sumter sparked the Civil War. Like many other southern women—including members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Richmond’s Hebrew Ladies’ Memorial Association for the Confederate Dead—Emma contributed to the veneration of the Confederacy that came to be known as the “Lost Cause.” This form of nostalgia relied upon a selective memory of the Civil War and proved central to postbellum efforts to strip Black Americans of their civil rights. Being a committed and thoughtful Jew did not insulate Emma from the racism endemic to white southerners of her day.
Emma Mordecai died on April 8, 1906, in Brevard, North Carolina, among family. She is buried in the Hebrew Cemetery in Richmond.
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