What does it mean to be Jewish? Or Black? What about both? Now, how about a Black Jewish family that can trace its lineage back to two enslaved people in Barbados? Reed College professor Laura Arnold Leibman, author of Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family (Oxford University) sheds light not only on one family’s history but also illuminates current debates..
Her book tracks the story of 19th-century siblings Sarah Brandon Moses, and Sarah’s brother Isaac Lopez Brandon, born in Barbados as the poor, Christian, enslaved children of a multi-racial mother and a Jewish father who purchased their freedom. The siblings moved first to Surinam’s Afro-Jewish community and eventually to the United States, where the census categorized them as white.
PW talked with Leibman about the fluidity of race and religious identity.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you first discover Sarah and Isaac Brandon and why did photos of them matter to you?
I was in Barbados, working on the book that became Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life, which came out in 2012. I was interviewing Karl Watson, who is the king of Barbadian history. He mentioned there was this interesting case involving Isaac Lopez Brandon. Later, as I found (Sarah and Isaac’s photos) I was like, “Whoa, wait a second.” I really engaged in the story. It would have been so much harder (to be engaged) without some visual sense of who they were, just from how they smiled. Then it was a matter of going back and looking at the manumission records to try and figure out what had happened.
Tell me about your background and how you approach your work.
I've been working in Jewish studies for a while, but my training is as an early Americanist. I'm really used to working with communities where there are few resources. That did help in terms of working in Barbados and trying to trace the history of the enslaved part of the family.
Your book is about moving from enslavement to freedom, and the fluidity of religious and racial boundaries. As you wrote this, what was foremost in your mind?
For me, this was really an opportunity to try and get at some of the lives of people of Jewish and African descent in those different places where we don't have that wealth of information. I really did want that to be their story. Their story also relates to a larger history, that's even harder to capture because there are people who didn't end up being freed and people who didn't end up getting tons of money. What happened to the people who weren't able to formally convert, who didn't have enough money to go to Suriname and etc.? You know, there's all these ‘what-ifs’ moments with them. What would (Sarah and Isaac’s lives) have been like? I wanted to show how hard it was for the sequence of events to line up exactly right, to allow them to be able to get the kind of freedoms that they ended up having.
What do you want people to take from reading your book?
If people see there’s been a diversity of types of Jews in the United States and in the Americas from the get-go, that would be a great revelation, just as Jewish communities today talk about how can we be more inclusive and even more welcoming. At the same time, I am interested in people thinking about how the understanding of race changed over time. … Race is socially constructed. But just because it's a social construct doesn't mean that it's something that isn't constantly being a source that acts upon people. What gives them their agency at various points and what are they not in control of?