January 12, 2022

Author and Scholar to Present Programs On Multiracial Jews in This Country

A RARE PORTRAIT: This ivory miniature of Sarah Rodrigues Brandon, the focus of an upcoming talk, is key to the understanding of the history of multiracial American Jews.

By Anne Levin

It is probably safe to say that most people associate the history of Jews in America with those who emigrated from Eastern European countries in the late 19th century. But that history encompasses earlier times and other parts of the globe as well, as author and Reed College professor Laura Arnold Leibman will discuss in two upcoming virtual events presented by area Jewish organizations.

The first, on January 20, co-sponsored by The Jewish Center Princeton, Congregation Beth Chaim, Adath Israel Congregation, and Flemington Jewish Community Center, focuses on Sarah Rodrigues Brandon, who was born into slavery in late 18th century Barbados and converted to Judaism, marrying into New York’s Jewish elite.

The second, on February 1, sponsored by the Rutgers Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, is all about Leibman’s book, Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family, which was published last year. Her earlier book, The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects, was published in 2020 and won three National Jewish Book Awards.

“In the general Jewish American community, this hasn’t been part of the story we’ve been told. And that’s interesting in itself,” said Leibman during a phone interview. “But for people in the field who are working on the history of Jews in the Caribbean, it is part of the story. A number of us are interested in this. Those communities are so diverse. We are starting to hear that this is actually a part of the early American story.”

It took Leibman a decade to finish her book, which was published by Oxford University Press. She teaches in the English and Humanities departments at Reed College. “It’s a slow process,” she said. “You go to archives, find little bits, and work on other books at the same time. But it also reflects on where I am in terms of how much research I’ve already done on other books. That is definitely a luxury of being further along in my career.”

Leibman was in Barbados, working on her first book, when she learned about the history of Sarah Rodrigues Brandon and her brother, Isaac Lopez Brandon. In Once We Were Slaves, Leibman traces their history starting with their enslavement in Barbados. “Tracing the siblings’ extraordinary journey, Leibman shows how they transformed their lives, becoming free, wealthy, Jewish, and — at times — white,” reads a release on the February 1 event. “While their affluence made them unusual, their story mirrors a largely forgotten population of mixed African and Jewish ancestry that constituted as much as 10 percent of the Jewish communities in which the siblings lived, and sheds new light on the fluidity of race—as well as on the role of religion in racial shift — in the first half of the 19th century.”

Ivory miniatures of the siblings are among the earliest known depictions of multiracial American Jews. When Leibman saw them, she was hooked.

“What clinched the deal for me was the miniatures,” she said. “They are gorgeous. They look like they are out of a Jane Austen novel. Both of the siblings are so characteristic of that time period. There was something about the miniatures, what my children refer to as ‘googly eyes,’ that evoke a kind of emotional response of, ‘I want to know you better.’ ”

The January 20 event is free and open to all. To register, email bethchaimrj@gmail.com. To sign up for the February 1 talk, visit bildnercenter.rutgers.edu.