While one of the founding principles of the United States of America is freedom of religion, any historian would agree that in the early days of the United States, this was often more principle than practice. Mordecai Manuel Noah, a lawyer, politician, journalist, diplomat and playwright (and a few other things) who was born shortly before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, firmly believed that his government would uphold this principle. The breach of this trust led to one of the most bizarre initiatives in Jewish American history: Ararat*, a would-be Jewish refugee settlement on Grand Island near Buffalo, New York.

Alas, the farthest Ararat ever got was the cornerstone that Noah displayed at the dedication ceremony in Buffalo in September 1825. Noah’s plan, which was financially supported by Freemasons and Christian Zionists, was to create a place where all Jews who wished to come to America could come. Noah, an ardent Zionist (even before there was Zionism), viewed his settlement as a temporary measure until the Jews could return to the real Holy Land. And while his plan sparked enthusiastic discussions, it did not have the support of the general Jewish community (whom Noah intended to tax to support Ararat).

It has been speculated that much of the inspiration for Ararat stemmed from Noah’s time in the diplomatic service. Beyond the fact that during his diplomatic travels he saw many restrictions placed on Jews in other countries, the real “eye-opener” for him was his dismissal from the position of U.S. Consul to Tunis in 1815, purportedly because he was a Jew. Noah’s outrage fueled his future career as a journalist, which, in turn, led him into politics. He was also a successful playwright (e.g.: She Would Be a Soldier; or, The Plains of Chippewa-1819, The Siege of Tripoli-1820, Marion; or, The Hero of Lake George-1821).

Mordecai Manuel Noah passed away on the 18th of Adar II, corresponding to March 22, 1851.

*The name is a play on his own name. Mount Ararat is where Noah’s ark came to rest when the waters finally receded after the Flood.

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