Once We Were Slaves: The Extra­or­di­nary Jour­ney of a Mul­ti-Racial Jew­ish Family

By – January 24, 2022

In Lau­ra Leibman’s newest his­to­ry, Once We Were Slaves: The Extra­or­di­nary Jour­ney of a Mul­tira­cial Jew­ish Fam­i­ly, the fas­tid­i­ous­ness of a wealthy New York-based Jew­ish woman in her old age serves as a win­dow into the tex­tured his­to­ry of ear­ly Amer­i­can mul­tira­cial Jew­ry and their mul­ti­va­lent sta­tus — as white, as Jew­ish, as those with fis­cal and social clout — through­out the Atlantic dur­ing America’s ear­ly years.

Spurred from a sin­gle foot­note doc­u­ment­ing ances­try in the records of Barbados’s Nid­he Israel syn­a­gogue, Once We Were Slaves doc­u­ments the fas­ci­nat­ing life and lega­cy of a pair of Jew­ish, bira­cial sib­lings, Sarah and Isaac Bran­don. The book begins with a pair of objects, as Leibman’s oth­er his­to­ries do, found in the fam­i­ly mem­o­ra­bil­ia of obses­sive geneal­o­gist and mem­ber of one of the most promi­nent Jew­ish fam­i­lies since the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, Blanche Moses. The objects in ques­tion are two ivory minia­tures depict­ing Moses’ grand­moth­er, Sarah, and her great-uncle, Isaac. While Moses her­self knew lit­tle of her pater­nal grand­moth­er and great-uncle’s lin­eage and assumed them Sephardic grandees, Leib­man locates Moses’ rel­a­tives among the slave­own­ers and enslaved of eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry Bar­ba­dos’ vast Jew­ish community.

Once We Were Slaves fol­lows the sib­lings — chil­dren of the wealthy Sephardic Jew, Abra­ham Rodrigues Bran­don, and an African woman, (Sarah) Esther Lopez-Gill (Leib­man uses paren­the­ses through­out the book to refer to Lopez-Gill’s first name), who was enslaved by the neigh­bor­ing Lopez fam­i­ly — from their birth into slav­ery, to their receival of an inher­i­tance from their pater­nal grand­fa­ther allow­ing them to buy their free­dom, to their con­ver­sions to Judaism (includ­ing an adult cir­cum­ci­sion for Isaac Bran­don), and in their jour­neys across the pond and back again, find­ing romance, friend­ship, and esteem among the main­stays of New York and Philadelphia’s Jew­ish elite.

In her expert unrav­el­ing of the Bran­don sib­lings’ ascent from enslave­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion into the eco­nom­ic and social elite of New York and Philadelphia’s mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, Leib­man exca­vates the intri­ci­ate geneal­o­gy of a Sephardic Jew­ish fam­i­ly from Bar­ba­dos in their roman­tic trysts, finan­cial tri­umphs, and com­plex rela­tion­ship to the racial and class hier­ar­chy that defined sec­u­lar and Jew­ish life in the Caribbean and beyond.

Leib­man takes on the role of our guide through some of the mud­di­er bits of Jew­ish Amer­i­can his­to­ry — the real­i­ties of Jew­ish slave­own­ers and their fick­le predilec­tions — and the his­to­ry of dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews of col­or in Jew­ish com­mu­nal and reli­gious spaces. The book’s title echoes the tem­pes­tu­ous rela­tion­ship to pow­er and social stand­ing of Jews both with­in their own com­mu­ni­ties and out­side of them, high­light­ing the Bran­dons’ own expe­ri­ence from the fringes of Jew­ish soci­ety in Suri­name to the inner cir­cles of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Jew­ish world. With a tone that is both frank and inti­mate, Leib­man helms a tale of two mul­tira­cial Jews and the com­mu­ni­ties they lived between and among, bring­ing to light a long and tur­bu­lent lega­cy of mul­tira­cial Jew­ry in the Americas.

Han­nah Kres­sel is a cur­rent fel­low at the Pardes Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies in Jerusalem. She holds a Mas­ters in Art His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford and a Bach­e­lors in Art His­to­ry and Stu­dio Art from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. Her research exam­ines the inter­sec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art, food, and reli­gion. She is an avid bak­er and cook.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Lau­ra Arnold Leibman

  1. For the per­son who chose this book: What made you want to read it? What made you sug­gest it to the group for dis­cus­sion? Did it live up to your expectations?

  2. What did you like or dis­like about this book?

  3. What did you know about the sub­ject pri­or to read­ing this book? If you knew of the sub­ject before, did any­thing you read change your opinion?

  4. What new infor­ma­tion did you learn about Jews in ear­ly Amer­i­ca or mul­tira­cial Jews?

  5. How did race and racism impact Sarah and Isaac’s lives?

  6. How did Sarah and Isaac’s lives com­pare to those of oth­er mul­tira­cial Jews in the book?

  7. What did you learn about the time peri­od in which the book is set that you did not pre­vi­ous­ly know? Dis­cuss the time peri­od in his­to­ry that each per­son in the group enjoys read­ing about most, and why.

  8. Has read­ing this book inspired you to do fur­ther research on the sub­ject and the time peri­od discussed?

  9. What did you find the most sur­pris­ing in this book?

  10. What were Sarah and Isaac’s most admirable qual­i­ties? Are they some­one you would want to know or have known?

  11. If you could go back in time and ask Sarah or Isaac any ques­tion, what would you ask?

  12. Does this book remind you of any oth­ers you have read for this group?

  13. What changes/​decisions would you hope for if the book were turned into a movie?

  14. Why do you think the author wrote this book? What was her biggest theme or message?

  15. Did you like the book’s ending?

  16. Did you have any ques­tions for the author?

In Once We Were Slaves, Lau­ra Leib­man uti­lizes a broad range of sources to expli­cate the com­pli­cat­ed com­po­nents of race and reli­gion in ear­ly nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Atlantic cul­ture. Leib­man clev­er­ly nar­rates this his­to­ry through the per­son­al ances­try research start­ed by Blanche Moses in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Con­trary to Moses’s own assump­tions about her fam­i­ly tree, Leib­man proves that she descend­ed, at least in part, from poor Chris­t­ian slaves, not Sephardic Jews. In twelve com­pelling chap­ters, Leib­man uses the lens­es of reli­gious con­ver­sion, social sta­tus, and eco­nom­ics to nav­i­gate through the Atlantic World — from New York to Suri­name, Bar­ba­dos to Lon­don — to show how flu­id race and reli­gion were not long ago. Leib­man’s research should res­onate with schol­ars of Jew­ish his­to­ry and any­one pre­pared to rethink the bound­ary lines of identity.