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C.S. Monaco. Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer.

C. S. Monaco. Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP, 2005. xi + 240 pp. $44.95

C. S. Monaco begins his biography of Moses Levy by noting his subject's numerous paradoxes. Levy was an abolitionist writer who owned dozens of slaves, a defender of Jewish traditionalism who was nevertheless influenced by Enlightenment Christianity, and a visionary planner whose utopian idealism was often at odds with his business concerns. Born of Sephardic origins in Morocco in 1782, Levy pursued a career in trade and shipping, crisscrossing the Atlantic between North Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the eastern United States. Monaco's account is an excellent representation of the Atlantic World in the early nineteenth century. He demonstrates the fluidity of commerce and, more importantly, international ideas circulating across four continents. Levy's own sojourns across the ocean make for a fascinating life, which, Monaco suggests, has received insufficient attention from previous scholars.

Monaco's early chapters detail Levy's business efforts, which included founding plantations in the Caribbean and serving as an arms dealer to Spain before traveling to Florida to pursue land speculation and sugar cultivation. However, Monaco suggests that, beyond purely financial matters, Levy's larger goal was building a Jewish utopian community in the United States. Jewish communal settlements were attractive to Levy and others primarily in response to new waves of anti-Semitism, which resulted in riots in Central Europe in the 1810s. Architects of Germany's Reform Movement advocated assimilation and incorporation of Christian themes into Jewish worship in the hopes that Jews would be embraced as full-fledged citizens by their Christian neighbors. In contrast, Monaco states, Levy "maintained a more traditional view that Jewish nationhood was synonymous with Jewish identity and could not be separated.... The theocratic Kingdom of Israel became Levy's ideal model for utopian speculation" (44).

Levy first attempted to buy land for such a Jewish settlement in the frontier territory of Illinois, but this effort was derailed during America's Panic of 1819. By 1820, Spain's ceding of Florida to the United States reignited Levy's colonization plans. Levy helped plan and promote the town of Micanopy, whose neatly planned streets and public roads were innovative for rural Florida in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, he promoted the idea of free public education in the Florida territory. In addition, he established a plantation and settlement called Pilgrimage to bring Jews to rural Florida. By 1823, five families of European Jewish background had settled in Levy's holdings, but legal battles called into question Levy's title to this land, and court battles hamstrung the community.

Monaco briefly mentions other antebellum communal experiments--such as Fourierism, Oneida, European Pietism, and New Harmony. But scholars looking for a more thorough discussion of nineteenth-century intentional communities might find this description limited. Monaco misses an opportunity to integrate Levy's Pilgrimage more completely into the broader context of nineteenth-century utopianism. Monaco should also mention how Levy's understanding of Jewish nationhood and settlement projects anticipates later Zionists. In particular, Theodore Herzl similarly embraces an international and trans-Atlantic perspective in his Jewish State (1896), which looks to the New World (specifically Argentina) as a possible site of Jewish nation-building. A deeper comparison with Levy's fellow utopians, in America and abroad, would contextualize Monaco's biography and give it more analytical weight.

Like many utopians, Levy's visionary plans were often limited by harsh political and financial realities. Monaco argues that Levy advanced new approaches to education--both co-educational religious instruction for Jewish children and a vocational-training school system for the Florida territory, but he was unable to generate support for the necessary revenue to support these projects. In the same way, his goal of establishing a Jewish settlement was mired in legal and financial difficulties and only attracted a small number of families. Levy's settlement of Pilgrimage was eventually burned down, possibly by nearby Seminole Indians. The loss of his plantation coupled with lengthy court battles left Levy in dire financial straits for nearly the remainder of his life.

Despite these later difficulties, Monaco argues, Levy's community at Pilgrimage "stirred his coreligionists" and "awakened a latent Jewish nationalism" (172). However, these statements seem unusual since Monaco demonstrates that Levy's utopian experiment was far from dogmatic or theocratic. Unlike other nineteenth-century communal movements such as the Shakers or John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida, Pilgrimage settlers did not have communal housing or rituals, did not perform collective labor, and, as Monaco states, never "submitted to authoritarian discipline" (113). Instead, they enjoyed land, housing, and other amenities all generously provided free of charge by Levy himself. In fact, "The absence of religious ritual, distinctive dress, and a traditional synagogue resulted in few outward signs that would have set Pilgrimage immediately apart" (113).

One particularly striking feature of Monaco's biography is its treatment of another Jewish utopian--Mordecai Noah. An outspoken playwright and politician, Noah embarked on a colonization venture during the 1820s which he termed "Ararat" (a reference to the mountain on which Noah's Ark landed after the biblical flood). Mordecai Noah aimed to create a Jewish homeland on Grand Island near Niagara Falls, which meant that he and Levy presented competing plans for Jewish colonization. Throughout this book, Monaco goes out of his way to question Noah's motives and discredit Ararat as a colonial venture. Arguing that Noah "preempted" Levy's idea for a Jewish homeland in America, Monaco suggests that Noah's motives went beyond "a noble quest" and stemmed as well for a desire to "capture the limelight" and "reap financial rewards" (67). Monaco later calls Noah's Grand Island colony a "fiasco" born of Noah's "curious blend of self-promotion and religious hokum" (117). In contrast, Monaco argues that Levy's Pilgrimage demonstrates his "utopian temperament" (10) and sincere desire for the "'regeneration' of the Jews" (51). Given that Pilgrimage was sparsely populated and exhibited few external signs of Jewish religiosity, this dichotomy seems unnecessary. However, Monaco's broader point--that Levy has been overlooked by historians who seem drawn to Noah's more flamboyant personality--is well taken. Levy, as Monaco aptly demonstrates, illustrates important features of Jewish nationalism which emerge decades before the formal Zionist movement.

Monaco also illustrates an understudied feature of utopianism in his discussion of Levy's attitudes toward slavery. Levy, a slaveholder in the Caribbean, continued the practice in Florida. Monaco estimates that Pilgrimage had between 10 and 31 slaves. And, while Levy embraced some reforms, he and his utopian colony benefited from the slave labor for years. As such, Monaco demonstrates, Pilgrimage expresses something of a utopian paradox. "The very thought of chattel slavery coexisting within an egalitarian environment runs counter to most historical assumptions" (109), Monaco states. "For this very reason," Monaco continues, "most utopians avoided the South" (110). Thus, Monaco's biography is an important corrective to the conventional "geography" of utopian studies, and a reminder that, for antebellum planters like Levy, slaveholding and utopianism were far from antithetical.

It would be easy to criticize Levy for promoting Pilgrimage as a "refuge" for oppressed Jews while perpetuating the oppression of slavery. However, Monaco reveals another dimension of Levy's personality by uncovering an abolitionist pamphlet attributed to Levy and likely written while he was traveling in London. Levy envisioned a transformed world where slavery was abandoned in favor of self-sufficient labor for former slaves who would own and work their own acreage. The foundation of Levy's abolitionist plan was that European convicts, rather than traveling to Australia or other penal colonies would intermarry with former slaves, and mixed-race families would work cooperatively at communally owned sugar mills. So, Monaco points out, Levy's abolitionist message is simultaneously a radical utopian vision by the standards of the antebellum era and a paradoxical one, too. After leaving London, Levy eschewed emancipating his own slaves and, in fact, tripled the number of slaves at Pilgrimage. Struggling with debt later in life, Levy chose to mortgage and eventually sells his plantations slaves rather than opt for manumission.

This paradox between Levy's vision for a radically transformed society, on the one hand, and the social expectations and business concerns for an antebellum plantation owner, on the other, is a recurring theme in Monaco's biography. Throughout his life, Levy vacillated between grandiose plans (the end of slavery, a Jewish homeland in America, free public education for all children) and staunch political and economic realities which drew his attention to more immediate concerns.

In a brief epilogue, Monaco suggest possible reasons why Levy, despite his pioneering work in promoting Jewish nationalism and the settlement of Florida, has received only limited attention. Part of the reason, Monaco suggests, is that Levy's international travels make it difficult to categorize him in an academic climate dependent on "intellectual turf" (173). Since his upbringing and shipping career took him across several countries and empires, Levy's full impact has not previously been recognized by historians or biographers. Yet Monaca also points out that Levy's utopianism also made him an unpopular figure for study--suggesting that scholars have downplayed or questioned the significance of his Pilgrimage community. While Monaco's biography could provide a deeper context for Levy's utopian speculation, his study deserves praise both for bringing an innovative figure to light. The fact that Monaco can do this while transcending national boundaries (as his subject does himself) makes this book even more admirable and insightful.

Reviewed by Justin Nordstrom, Penn State Hazleton
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Author:Nordstrom, Justin
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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