IN THE SHADOW OF ZION
Grand Island, NY
Beaver Island State Park
1 November 2007
I arrive in Buffalo two hours later than expected. Thank you, Amtrak. So I tear off in my rented cherry-red Mustang towards the meeting of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society at RiverLea, an old farmhouse on the southern tip of Beaver Island Park—land once purchased for Noah’s Jewish “city of refuge.” They’ve been expecting me and I’m embarrassed to turn up so late. The park is deserted, it’s pitch black, and the road is a spaghetti of one way access, parking lots, and grass medians.
A Jack o’Lantern leads to the otherwise obscured entranceway to RiverLea, a white Victorian squarely sitting on a grassy lot. Fallen leaves are underfoot and the air is crisp. I squeeze my way through the double doors that squeak and announce my arrival to a roomful of older women. They turn to stare at me as if I’ve just burst in with a chainsaw revving in my hand. I take a seat in the back, avoiding the precious needlepoint chairs. Next to me a gaunt nonagenarian wearing cords and a cable-knit cardigan slouches over. He’s asleep, or nearly so.
The woman at the front of the room speaks earnestly about Hummel figurines. She once had hundreds them and explains that she had to clean them one at a time and “wash their little faces with 409.” The history, as much as I got, is that a nun, Sister Hummel, created the porcelain keepsakes because she “loved children and loved God very, very much.” When asked whether her convent kept producing the figurines during WWII, the Hummel-lady explains that the Nazis only allowed them to be produced for export. Hitler made it difficult for the nuns to make the figurines by billeting soldiers in the convent. She adds in the sternest language she knows, “Hitler was a hateful, hateful man.”
Ararat & Love Canal
3 November 2007
This is Noah’s “city of refuge” today: a Holiday Inn, a golf course, a small cemetery, a retirement community, a weed-covered lot. Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a historical marker, so I pull my Mustang over, climb out and hop over a drainage channel. It’s the marker for Ararat.
I hear someone in the condos nearby and head across a landscaped yard to meet the occupant, Helen, an older woman dressed church proper. She cannot remember what the marker is for, or what the whole business was about. I ask her how she feels to be living on land once proposed for a Jewish state. Helen simply says that she’s lived on Grand Island for seventy years and that “it’s a nice place.” Her friend pulls up in the driveway and is naturally suspicious of me. I explain what I’m doing, and then a cop arrives to see what’s going on. He’s also never heard of Ararat or of Noah, and he never noticed the historical marker. “Interesting,” he says and cocks his chin towards the sign. Then he asks me to move my car from the side of the road.
I head off to nearby Love Canal, the location of another failed utopian scheme. In the late nineteenth century, William Love hoped to build a “Model City” along the canal he envisioned would run from Lake Ontario to the Niagara River. By the 1970s, Love Canal was a by-word for chemical pollution and corporate rapaciousness. Today the gutted town limps along, home to small working class houses with carports. A tall chain-link fence protects an unbroken grass sea—about 100 feet wide and several times as long. This is the exclusion zone, site of the most toxic pollutants dumped by Hooker Chemical. Nearby are the remains of a neighborhood that had been leveled, but which was not included in the exclusion zone. Driveways run to nowhere. Concrete slabs mark the filled-in foundations of what were once homes. Weeds grow high around rusting fireplugs and battered light poles. I can think of no more ironic end for Love’s dreams.
Noah & The Church of Latter-Day Saints
New York’s “burned-over district” spawned dozens of religious movements that appealed to Americans expanding westward following the War of 1812. But the Church of Latter-day Saints stands out as the most successful and enduring by far. And Noah’s efforts to provide a territorial solution to persecution may even have influenced the New York founders of the Mormon faith to later carve out their Western Zion. Though the evidence, concludes historian and Mormon expert Richard Bushman, is “circumstantial […] and nothing more,” what is certain is that founding prophet Joseph Smith lived in proximity to Buffalo when the Ararat plan was still a recent and sensational memory. Both he and Noah can be seen as having been moved by the utopian spirit of their time and place. Noah’s personal secretary, Abraham Benjamin Seixas, who participated in the Ararat ceremonies, was the first cousin of Joshua (James) Seixas, who taught Smith and his disciples Hebrew in Ohio. As a child, Noah himself had studied Hebrew with Joshua’s father in New York, so the younger Seixas likely knew of Noah and his planned colony. Finally, Noah published and wrote the introduction to the apocryphal Book of Jasher. The copyright seems to have been transferred after Noah’s death to a Mormon publishing house in Salt Lake City, and the non-canonical text continues to arouse interest among practicing Mormons today. Given these connections, it’s not difficult to believe that the legacy of Ararat may endure in Utah. But Steven Harper, professor of Church History at Brigham Young University, is “not yet persuaded.” While he does admit that these links are “suggestive,” he will not go so far as to describe them as likely. Interestingly, Noah spoke out against the “intolerance and cruel bigotry” that greeted the early Mormon faithful. Despite Noah’s apparent humanitarianism, it remains a bitter irony that the man who fashioned himself into an American Moses advocating freedom for Jews, Native Americans, and Mormons, was staunchly opposed to abolition, once claiming: “There is liberty under the name of slavery.”
[Interviews with Bushman and Harper conducted in January 2008]