A couple of weeks ago, Claire Jones, an intern from Princeton University, posted about her project centered on Judaica at AAS. This is the next installment in her findings.
From its cover, the book looked totally ordinary. I had picked the title—The Life and Adventures of John Levy—from my list of memoirs for a few reasons. First, if the author’s name was anything to go by, the book had been written by a Jew—something you can’t say about all the works in the Judaica collection, but a perspective that I’ve been trying to keep front and center in my work this summer. Second, AAS’s online catalog entry for the work was a bit curious: it listed the book as having to do with both African Americans and abolitionism. Intrigued and hoping to find something that might cross genres, I put in a request for the title and tracked it down in the stacks with Elizabeth, curator of books.
When I sat down after lunch to peruse the book, I knew from the first sentence that we’d stumbled on something great. Levy opened his memoir by revealing his birthplace as Nevis—an amazing stroke of luck, considering AAS’s interest in the Caribbean. Levy was probably a Sephardic Jew, part of the population that had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and rooted out over the years by the Inquisition. The Sephardim fled to other European countries—England and the Netherlands received large populations—as well as the relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire. The first Jews who settled in the United States in the seventeenth century arrived by way of the Caribbean, settling there on islands like Nevis before moving on to New York.
Hoping to find a portrait of Sephardic life in the Caribbean, I read on eagerly, finding out in the next few chapters that our hero spoke fluent Spanish (confirming his Sephardic heritage?) and growing more excited by the page. Levy threw a wrench into my plans, though, when not ten pages later, while describing the few years he spent in Liverpool, he tossed in a line about going to church on Sundays. Church? On Sundays? I started to get nervous. Was our perfect Caribbean Sephardim turning out to be something entirely different?
As it turned out, Levy never mentioned synagogue, or prayer, or Hebrew, or anything at all to do with Judaism in his memoir. Only the fact that his family was full of seemingly textbook Jewish names—his parents Daniel and Hannah, his sister Judith, his daughter Rachel—kept me going as I neared the end of Levy’s account. Fifteen pages from the end, though, there was another startling revelation. It turned out that the reason AAS had listed the book as African American literature was because Levy himself was a person of color. Such an important detail, dropped in rather unceremoniously just before Levy’s account of serving in the Civil War and the discrimination he faced in New England before and during the conflict, only left me even more confused about what exactly I had just read. I was dealing with a possibly Christian, probably black, Caribbean-born man with a Jewish name, and I needed help.
Luckily, Elizabeth knew just how to deal with the conundrum. We went straight to ancestry.com, entered Levy’s name, birthplace, and date of birth (all conveniently provided in the first sentence of his memoir) and, sure enough, he was the first result. Our search confirmed a good deal of the details in Levy’s memoir (though some, like his tale of seeing Napoleon sail past on his way to St. Helena, remain unconfirmed). Records confirmed that he was a well-off barber who was active in the New England abolition scene and married twice to mixed-race women, the first being the daughter of a slave. The census records didn’t quite seem to know what to do with Levy himself, though, with one listing him as “Black,” another as “Mixed,” and still another as “Mulatto”. Our confusion on this essential point was only deepening until we found a magic phrase, in his obituary of all places: “of Moorish origin.” That would explain so much, including the Spanish skills and the ambiguous ethnicity that confused U.S. census-takers. A possible new picture of Levy, this time the son of a Sephardic family that had lost its Jewish religion but maintained some of the old culture and traditions, began to emerge. And a last-minute search of Levy’s father Daniel gave us the best confirmation of all when he was linked to a fascinating article: “The Sefardim of the Island of Nevis.”
We had our Caribbean Sephardic Jew, then. Excellent. But we also had a successful businessperson of color making a living in New England and an active and dedicated abolitionist whose devotion to the cause was clearly personal. We followed John Levy’s story, going from utter confusion to rich clarity that afternoon, reminding ourselves that history is so much more complicated—and so much more rewarding—than the title of a book can suggest.
Obituary, March 27, 1879, Lawrence American, Lawrence, MA (“of Moorish origin”)
1850 United States Federal Census (“Black”)
New York State Census 1855 (“Mulatto”)
1870 United States Federal Census (“Black”)
Massachusetts Death Records, 1879 (“Mixed”)
John Levy’s first wife Sophia – 1850 United State Federal Census (living with “Minor Lewis”)
John Levy’s second wife Henrietta – 1850 United States Federal Census (“Mulatto”)