Mordecai Manuel Noah was an army major, a playwright, a politician, a newspaper editor,
and -- most importantly -- was among the earliest and most well-known utopian Zionists.
Born July 19, 1785 to Portuguese Jewish parents in Philadelphia, Noah lived amongst
family until he was able to move to Charleston, South Carolina, where he began to
make a name for himself in politics. He started in the business around the age of 26 with
fiery, patriotic editorials in
the local newspaper. On the merits of his writing he was made the U.S. Consul to Tunis, in
the service of which he endangered his life in an effort to rescue American prisoners
from the Barbary states. Later in his career, as sheriff of New York, Noah became liable for
a small fortune when he freed all debtors following an outbreak of Yellow Fever in the prisons.
In 1815, he returned to New York and decided to continue his political career as
a journalist and playwright. In his time ranked with Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper,
Noah was the first important Jewish-American writer. Among his better-known plays are "Fortress
of Sorrento" (1808) "She Would Be A Soldier" (1819) and "Siege of Tripoli" (1820).
However, Mordecai Noah's reputation as a colorful politician and patriotic playwright are today overshadowed
by his efforts towards the establishment of the Jewish nation. Although he loved his country, he believed
that there was no more hope in America than anywhere else (i.e. no hope) for Jews to be treated as equals until the establishment
of Israel. To solve this problem, Noah planned and helped finance the purchase of Grand Island and its subsequent
transformation into Ararat, intended as a temporary place of refuge.
Unfortunately, his plan was ultimately a failure. Few other prominent Jews thought much of his plan or, for that matter,
of him and his manner of behaving; there were no immigrants to Ararat; he did not follow through on the arrangements
to develop the island with concrete.
Disappointed, his belief in the importance of Palestine as the Jewish homeland was only strengthened, leading to many
further writings and lectures to come. Although he never again went through with a plan quite as interesting as the
establishment of Ararat, he went on to help found New York University and to project the idea for Mt. Sinai Hospital
(only to be developed after his death).
Although his most famous effort is now a footnote in Jewish-American history, at the time of his
death in 1851 Mordecai Noah was the most influential person in the Jewish-American community.
"For his patriotic devotion the protagonist is accused of opportunism... for his generosity of spirit he is decried as a voluptuary."
--Samson Gergel (From 'The Jew Of New York' by Ben Katchor)