American literature owes a debt to the Jews

Touro Fellow studied in Providence this summer

Jacob Crane, the Touro National Heritage Trust Fellow who spent this past summer studying at the John Carter Brown library, presented his research topic at a RISD Brown Hillel luncheon with a focus on “Ararat.”
On Grand Island near the Niagara River in upstate New York, “Ararat” was to be the Jewish colony proposed by Mordecai Noah, a remarkable journalist and ambassador of the early 19th century.

Crane, working on his doctoral dissertation at Tufts University, made scholarly pursuits look good: He gave credit where credit was due, addressed the audience with courtesy, respect and careful attention to questions and comments, and spoke in a lively and easy fashion.

“Jonathan Sarna labeled Noah the ‘Jacksonian Jew’ who lived ‘in two worlds,’” claimed Crane, at the luncheon on Wednesday, Aug. 7, in his talk, “By a Hidden Nation: Jewish Identity and the Lost Tribes in the Anglophone Atlantic.”

“Beginning with Christopher Columbus’ first voyage, Europeans have traveled to the New World expecting to find the Lost Tribes of lsrael,” said Crane.  “Explorers and scholars became convinced that the Native Americans descended from those mythical Israelites,” he said. “Two texts – Menasseh ben Israel’s 1650 volume ‘The Hope of Israel’ and Mordecai Manuel Noah’s ‘Declaration to the Jews,’ in 1825 – used accounts of the Lost Tribe to argue for political inclusion in Britain and the early United States.”

Crane also thanked the friendly fellows and librarians of the John Carter Brown Library for their conversational contributions to his pursuits.

Noah had wanted to create a city of refuge for the Jews of Europe who were suffering from the pogroms of tyrannical regimes, but his project was never successful in its own time.

Little remains of his dream except a stone marker, which has been moved, like a misplaced token souvenir, from one site to another.  Although Noah’s career held a number of contradictions, he nonetheless never abandoned his primary concern for the legitimacy of the quest for a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land and also for a proper place in the New World.

Crane impressed the gathering with his knowledge, his eloquence and, perhaps chiefly, his collegiality.  He thanked Bernard Bell for his aid and support during his sojourn in Providence as well as the kind words spoken to and about him.

Most academicians look askance at any notion that the “Lost Tribes” might include the Narragansetts or the Pequots – although our own Roger Williams entertained just that idea – and go so far as to accuse those who believed this legend of exploitive racism.  They argue that reservations were used to move the Indians from their own lands to arbitrary places less profoundly rooted in their cultures. To make room for economic progress for the invading immigrants, they cooked up fancy justifications, according to the conventional contemporary college viewpoint.
“There is, nevertheless, good reason to examine lore with  serious consideration,” said Crane.

This columnist thought, “Isn’t Israel doing just that in its Museum of the Diaspora?”

Perhaps the reason for the success of this talk lies not only in the sociable personality of the Touro scholar, Crane, wrestling with his own challenging angel, but also in both the spoken comments and the unspoken thoughts of all who spent a valuable hour on a bright summer’s day.

American literature itself, in some ways, owes a debt to the Hebrews and the Jews and Mordecai Noah, who paved the pathway for all outsiders and displaced persons to make a distinction between their own culture and the new opportunities of the hemisphere of hope, said Crane.

And, of course, what’s in a name is the hero Mordecai and the wandering Noah both of whom, in the Torah, saved a world  – perhaps poetically, perhaps politically.

Mike Fink (, an English professor at Rhode Island School of Design, is a Providence resi-dent.