Dr. Levi Myers and Antebellum American Jewishness

In our previous research into the earliest records of Jewish presence at Princeton University, we uncovered something unexpected. Our Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 file on Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812, contains correspondence between Mordecai’s father, Levi Myers, and a man named Cleland Kinlock. Though they do not mention Princeton or Mordecai Myers, and thus would not ordinarily be found in an alumni file, these letters offer a fascinating look into antebellum American Jewish reflection on religious identity.

Levi Myers, the son of another Mordecai Myers and Esther Cohen Myers, was born October 26, 1767 in Jacksonboro, South Carolina. His parents had moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1750, where Esther Cohen’s father served as the rabbi of Beth Elohim Synagogue. Mordecai and Esther sent their son to study medicine in Charleston at the age of 15. After apprenticeships with Drs. Haynes and Ramsay, Myers went on to medical school at Edinburgh University in 1785. He returned to South Carolina in 1789, where he set up a successful medical practice of his own. In 1794, he married Frances Minis. Together they had 8 children, including the Mordecai Myers who later went to study at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1809.

In September 1822, a hurricane hit the South Carolina coast, destroying the house where the Myers family lived. There was only one survivor, a household servant. Levi, Frances, four of their children, and nine members of their household staff (very likely including several slaves) all died when the house collapsed.

Though a few letters sent to Dr. Myers are found in his son’s Undergraduate Alumni Records file, we’ve chosen to highlight the one most focused on Jewish identity. We’ve done our best at offering a transcription, but some of the text still eludes us, and we welcome any suggestions to fill in the blanks. We believe the “Bishop Warburton” referenced here is William Warburton, an Anglican bishop of Gloucester who was known for controversial writings. Click each image to enlarge.
Kinlock_1_AC104_Box_72 Kinlock_2_AC104_Box_72

June 15, 1818

 

Dear Sir,

 

It was one of the peculiarities of the Hebrew People that they never sought to make proselytes, in which I am, I assure you, as good a Jew as any one of the descendants of Abraham. The fact is that I have no sort of confidence in my own opinions, nor indeed in the opinions of others, for such is my idea of the weakness & [______?] & fallibility of human nature, the imperfections of human language & the indistinctness of our ideas that I would whether any man that ever breathed ever knew the truth of anything, or if he had known it whether he would be able to communicate it to others. My mind is oppressed & crushed by a sense of my own ignorance, & by the discouraging tendency of my own notions, & I now consider myself as a bad man if I placed these notions within the view of those who might be injured by them. You, I believe are not liable to be injured by these notions of mine & therefore, at your request, I trust these to you, begging that you will be as careful of them as I am myself, & that you will return them to my overseer [_______?] at your leisure.

 

I would be much obliged to you if you could procure me by loan or by purchase any of the works which contain exposition of your learned of their arguments against Christianity, or org. texts which had been quoted against Bishop Warburton or said by him to be redoles & riddles he says that they contain for him. Now what those texts were which learning & insolence could not twist & turn to his own purposes I cannot imagine & I would like much to know.

 

Your Dear Sir Most Sincerely,

Cleland Kinlock

Sources:

Collins, Kenneth. “Levi Myers (1767-1822): An Eighteenth Century Glasgow Medical Graduate from South Carolina.” Journal of Medical Biography (2014).

Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104).

An Update on the Earliest Records of Jewish Students at Princeton

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the search to find the first Jewish student at Princeton. As I noted, the “first” student in any category is probably impossible to determine. However, I was able to find a record suggesting possible Jewish presence dating back to 1859, when Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 arrived to begin his studies. In today’s post, I support my own claims about the difficulty of determining “firsts” by showing that Jewish presence at Princeton goes back at least half a century further than initially thought. The earliest records I have found thus far now uncover the life of another Jewish student who began his work at Princeton in 1809, Mordecai Myers, but a handful of other Jewish students also attended Princeton in the antebellum period.

Follow up from our readers has prompted this update on two counts. The first concerns Albert Mordecai’s connection to Judaism. Yosef Razin ’11 wrote in with research he conducted on the Mordecai family in the U. S. Census records and other sources. There is conflicting data regarding the family origins, he says, but sources seem to agree that Mordecai’s origins through his paternal line were Jewish. His mother’s ethnic background may or may not have been Jewish. Those on campus or with a subscription can access these records through the Ancestry.com databases.

The second update makes it clear, however, that whether or not Albert Mordecai considered himself Jewish, he would not have been the first Jewish student at Princeton. Sven Henningson ’16 uncovered a reference to Mordecai Myers as a Jewish graduate of Princeton and alerted us to the possibility that he had been on campus much earlier than Albert Mordecai. Having done some digging, I have confirmed that Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812, was Jewish and earned his A.B. from Princeton in 1812. This research led down a path that uncovered a few other Jewish students at Princeton prior to the Civil War.

Mordecai Myers, the son of Levi Myers and Francis Minis, born November 9, 1794, was just shy of 15 years old when he arrived at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1809. Myers was advanced enough to skip his freshman year and was admitted to the sophomore Class of 1812. This proved fortuitous in terms of being able to finish his degree, because war broke out in 1812. According to a 1909 letter from his son to the Princeton University Secretary, when armed conflict began with Great Britain in June 1812, Myers returned home to his native Charleston, South Carolina, but this didn’t prevent him from graduating with his class the following September.

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Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812. Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104), Box 72.

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Dear Mr. Mudd: Who Was Princeton’s First Jewish Student?

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Who was the first Jewish student at Princeton?

A. An exhibit at the Historical Society of Princeton speculated that Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 was “very likely the first” Jewish student at the College of New Jersey (now named Princeton University). Although Mordecai might well have been the first Jewish student at Princeton, our records cannot offer a definitive confirmation.

Mordecai,_Albert_Class_of_1863_AC058_Box_MP20

Albert Mordecai, Class of 1863. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box MP20.

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Proudly We Can Be Jews: The Jewish Experience at Princeton

“I never found Princeton a terribly comfortable place in terms of my being a Jew…”
–Morton Denn ‘61

In 1993, the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) opened at 70 Washington Ave. The mission of the CJL was to provide a place for all Jews (orthodox, conservative, reform or secular) to eat, worship, and socialize. Although the Center primarily served Jewish needs, it also allowed Jewish students to dine with their non-Jewish friends. The struggle to gain campus recognition was a long endeavor that lasted more than a century. Before the CJL opened, Jewish students gathered at Murray-Dodge, in off-campus housing, or in their dorm rooms, keeping Judaism and Jewishness alive.

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First page of a letter from Marcus Lester Aaron ’20 to Rabbi Louis I. Egelson, December 15, 1919. Marcus Lester Aaron Correspondence (AC420), Box 2, Folder 3.

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“This Ceremony Was Not Sanctioned”: Gay Marriage at Princeton

With the policy that young lovers of the same sex may no longer sign the marriage register and that Michael Beer and Jason Rudy will have a retractory asterisk placed by their entry, neither side of the aisle gets what it wants. … No one who has attended ours, the most pragmatic of all universities, should be surprised. –Micah Weinberg ’98, “Stuck in the Middle of the Road,”  Progressive Review, November 1997

Eighteen years ago today, the first same-sex wedding was held in the Princeton University Chapel. Gay marriage was not legal in New Jersey (nor anywhere in the nation) so the ceremony was a symbolic one rather than a legally binding contract. The couple were both Princetonians. Michael Beer earned his Princeton degree in 1995 and had been a graduate student in plasma physics when he met Jason Rudy ’97, an English major. They had begun dating three years prior to the event and had been living together for two. Knowing that the marriage would not be legally recognized, Rudy told the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “With the exception of a stronger sense of commitment and emotional security, opening a joint bank account, and getting a new set of towels, nothing much will change.”

Editorial_Cartoon_Progressive_Nov_1997

Editorial cartoon, Progressive Review, November 1997.

When news of their plans to marry in the Chapel appeared, it invited heavy criticism for the Assistant Dean of Religious Life, Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, who performed the ceremony. Though primarily concerned with the precedent set by having a same-sex wedding in the Chapel, another issue that troubled some students and alumni was that Beer and Rudy were atheists, while the wedding was heavily laden with the trappings of Christian tradition. Other responses were supportive of Morrow and of the couple.
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