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Oy Pioneer!

Mordecai: An Early American Family

By Emily Bingham

Hill and Wang, 346 pages, $26.

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History isn’t what it used to be. What was once the exclusive stomping ground of kings, emperors, presidents and warriors has been opened to the public, so to speak. Nowadays, history books are written on just about anything or anyone, from high-stakes racehorses to tsarist mistresses.

Often, the results of such endeavors are weak, books that seem to stretch the meaning of “history” too far. But sometimes, writers alight on a group of truly compelling characters — people whose stories are both their own as well as those of the society at large.

Such is the case with “Mordecai: An Early American Family,” by Emily Bingham, who describes herself as an independent scholar living in Louisville, Ky. “Mordecai” concerns three generations of Jews who lived in Warrenton, N.C., a small county seat in the middle of North Carolina’s plantation country — and other points south — throughout the 19th century. The book’s success in offering an intimate view of both the family and early American history — it traverses the period from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War — is due primarily to Bingham’s choice of subjects.

They were not famous people, although an early Mordecai home stands today as a historic site in Raleigh, North Carolina. Nor, for many years, were most of them particularly well-to-do. Indeed, the Mordecais who populate this book harbored considerable anxieties about whether they as a group or individuals would ever be truly wealthy or wonderful or, as it happened, even Jewish.

For those of us burdened with the prejudice that Jews can’t — for various cultural, social and meteorological reasons — live outside of the northeastern United States, this book offers a needed lesson in American Jewish history. But it also charts a world that may be terra incognita to even historically astute readers.

The Mordecais were among only 2,000 to 3,000 Jews who lived in all of colonial America. The family — led by the soon-to-be patriarch Jacob and his wife, Judy — moved south from Philadelphia in 1787, first to Virginia and eventually landing in Warrenton. Along the way, the family went into the business of running what would become a well-known school for girls. The Mordecais also spawned the odd doctor and lawyer, and slowly excused themselves from the rituals and obligations of their Jewish heritage — much to the disapproval of Jacob.

In some ways, “Mordecai” is a standard American saga, in which Old World tradition puts up its dukes against the promise of an accent- and anxiety-free future. But what gives the book its particular flavor is that many of the Mordecais are, as they say, real characters.

Alfred Mordecai, for instance, was accepted into West Point, graduated first in his class and shinnied up the chain of command — only to refuse to fight for either side in the Civil War. Marx Edgeworth Lazarus obtained brief notoriety for his writings on free love, provoking the ire of family members as well as Henry James Sr., who called Marx’s book “a needless affront to public decorum.” And then there was Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, a master teacher and the family wit who eventually gave everyone the surprise of their life: “One day, Rachel cornered Alfred and Eliza as the three were riding in a carriage and questioned them about their ‘want of religion.’ She had, she said, found new life through Jesus’ mercy, and she urged them to seek it, too.”

While Bingham is obviously a thorough researcher — the book features 59 pages of notes — she might have attended more closely to her language, particularly her use of cliché. Of course, the problem may be one of narrative expectations. Though “Mordecai” makes some novelistic rumbles and often reads like a family memoir, the book is ultimately a work of historical interpretation. Though Bingham eventually relaxes her tone, one cannot help but wonder what an alert novelist might have made of these people. Indeed, there are times when this reader wished Bingham would stop writing history, forget the footnotes and let the story issue directly from the consciousness of the Mordecais themselves.

In the end, though, Bingham’s book is valuable in that it insists we stop to consider the size of our own lives. We are, 99% of us, engaged in Mordecai-scale activities. Our familial and business and romantic adventures may feel extremely important to us, but they probably won’t be to future generations. We are as temporary, as ordinary, as the Mordecais. Nonetheless, “Mordecai” suggests that some latter-day Bingham could take an interest in our lives and reconstruct the salient facts for some future audience. Then we too will make history — at least until that book goes out of print.

Ken Gordon is a freelance writer in Boston. He writes a regular column for Child Magazine.

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