Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Laura Arnold Leibman’s Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family will be out in July, published by Oxford University Press. Here is a brief review by Publishers Weekly:

Reed College English professor Leibman (Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism) uncovers in this exhaustive chronicle the lost history of a prominent New York City Jewish family. Though heiress Blanche Moses (1859–1946) obsessively collected family records, she “drew an uncharacteristic blank” when it came to the maternal line of her grandmother, Sarah Brandon Moses (1798–1829), and great-uncle, Isaac Lopez Brandon (1793–1855), whose father was the “wealthiest Jew” on the island of Barbados. Leibman reveals that Sarah and Isaac were actually born “poor, Christian, and enslaved”: their mother was a multiracial woman owned by another Jewish family on the island.

After their father helped purchase their freedom, the siblings left for the Dutch colony of Suriname in 1811, where they joined “the largest Afro-Jewish community in the world, outside of Africa.” Sarah eventually married the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman, and she and her children were categorized as white in the 1820 New York census. Meanwhile, Isaac made a new start in Philadelphia’s thriving Jewish community. Leibman highlights the fluidity of early America’s racial boundaries and the multiracial threads of Jewish history, but readers may struggle to keep the branches of this complex family tree straight. Those with a genealogical bent, however, will be rewarded by this painstaking deep dive.

Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family

Oxford University Press, July 2021
296 pages
ISBN: 978-0197530474 (hc)
https://global.oup.com/academic/product/once-we-were-slaves-9780197530474

Book review by Publishers Weekly:
https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-19-753047-4

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