The Life of Mendes I. Cohen: “American-Jew, or Jewish American?”

Posted on July 4th, 2013 by

Yonah RebackA blog post by Exhibitions Intern Yonah Reback. Yonah is working with Curator Karen Falk on our upcoming “A-MAZE-ing Mendes” exhibition as well as on programming for our Jews on the Move traveling exhibition. To read more posts by Yonah and other interns, click here.

young mendes

Mendes Cohen, 1818. Portrait by Joseph Wood.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978.67.1

It’s a familiar trope to anyone who has considered the issue of Jewish identity within the United States—is one an ‘American-Jew,’ or a ‘Jewish American?” Though the answer is arbitrary, the distinction seems to imply an order of precedence. To identify as an ‘American-Jew’ is to identify foremost as an American, whereas being ‘Jewish-American’ retains the moniker of ‘Jew’ as primary.  Of course, delineating one’s Jewish identity as an American is a task hardly reflected by a choice of words alone. Indeed, reconciling Jewish identity within a non-Jewish state is perhaps the most emblematic challenge of the Diaspora. For all of Jewish history since the Diaspora, Jews have been forced to grapple with the duality of their identity in a foreign land.

Imagine for a moment that you are the first Jew in America. It’s not easy to picture, given that today Jews are a small but prominent demographic feature of American society. Yet for Baltimorean Mendes I. Cohen, the social landscape of early 19th century America was one with very few Jews. Though Cohen was not literally the first Jew in America, he grew up in Baltimore at a time when its Jewish community was defined by only two families—his own, and the Etting family. In this sense, Cohen experienced Jewish life in a manner that was solitary, though deeply personal. Despite the fact that he lived without a typical community structure, Cohen openly practiced his Judaism. It was in these moments of expression—against the backdrop of early American life—that the novelty of his experience was apparent. While defending Fort McHenry against the British in the War of 1812, Cohen nonetheless ate kosher food, which he received from his family daily. Well before American Jews were categorized and labeled, Cohen practiced his own, unique brand of American Judaism.

older mendes

Mendes I. Cohen, c. 1835-1840 by Unknown Artist.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 1947.22.2

Perhaps the most interesting way in which Cohen defined his American/Jewish identity occurred not in America, but abroad. From 1829 to 1835, Cohen traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. Most significantly, Cohen spent time in Israel, becoming the first American Jew to encounter the land. What Cohen wrote about his time spent in Israel captured the tensions he felt as an American Jew, which foreshadowed many of the attitudes that persist today.   After spending time with the small contingent of Jews in Israel living under Ottoman rule in the 1830s, Cohen wrote that, “America is the land of milk and honey where each may sit under his own vine and fig tree and none to make them afraid.” In this sense, Cohen extolled his native homeland as a country where religious freedom enabled Jews to practice unimpeded by government rule. Still, Mendes I. Cohen understood the significance of Jews living in Israel and was genuinely moved by his visit to the Old City of Jerusalem.

As we enjoy July 4th, may we all take a moment to appreciate the religious freedom that America affords its citizens, which has allowed for a Jewish legacy spanning the days of Mendes I. Cohen until today.

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