The diary of Joseph Lyons, 1833-1835.

Author:Ferrara, Marie
Position:Part Three: New Documents for the Study of American Jewish History - Transcript


On a warm April day in 1833, in the city of Savannah, Georgia, a young Jewish man opened the cover of a blank book and entered history. His name was Joseph Lyons, and his diary, presented here in its entirety for the first time, is remarkable for a number of reasons. (1) A native of Charleston, South Carolina, and a recent graduate of South Carolina College, Lyons was a mere nineteen years old and weighed in at a hundred pounds; but what he lacked in material substance he more than made up for in the heft of his intelligence, the strength of his longings, and the vastness of his dreams. His tale is full of human interest and rife with the contradictions and complexities of youth. It is at the same time a visceral account of the struggle between the sacred and the secular that confronted Jewish Americans of Lyons's generation: how to sustain their Judaism in the face of unprecedented freedom and opportunity.

Joseph had recently arrived in Savannah to study in the law office of Levi Sheftall D'Lyon, a successful Jewish attorney, and for the first time in his life he was learning "what it was to be a stranger." Far from his family and without many peers, he had few people to talk to. All he had was the bound volume, and it comforted him. "Though I have never seen this book before," he noted, "I feel as if restored to the Conversation of a sincere friend." (2)

Lyons began with a recitation of recent events. He had "witnessed more novelty" during the past few months than he had "in all my preceding existence," and he was bursting to tell it. After graduating from college, he had traveled to the port cities of Charleston, Philadelphia, and Savannah, gone on a sea voyage, and undertaken what he thought was going to be his life's work. To make sense of the dizzying whirl, he put his thoughts into words and, once started, he kept "journalizing."

He wrote regularly for two years--from April 1833 until April 1835--using the diary to rehearse his feelings and debate his future. He argued with himself about whether to become a lawyer, doctor, or hazan (cantor who, in early America, often functioned as the religious leader of a congregation). He mulled over bigger issues, such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. He reported on day-to-day life, gossip, and politics. He railed against his inadequacies, insecurities, and envy, bared his adolescent angst, and began to devise a philosophy of life. At the back of the book, he noted expenditures and made a list of the books in his library, keeping track of which ones friends borrowed and returned.

"It is such a fireside, winter-evening enjoyment," he wrote of his pastime, but it was not an unmitigated delight. He weighed the pros and cons of the habit, as he would examine both sides of nearly everything he came to write about in his journal. (Only his belief in the right of a state to overthrow federal law, it seems, was impervious to doubt.) Journal writing "gives pleasure," he conceded, but also "a disposition to egotism." It prompts one "to mark down everything about ourselves so minutely that at last, these trifles are constantly recalled and thereby impressed, that we become rather too particular in our observations." Yet the practice "of examining and analyzing our motives and actions" is eminently useful, he thought, "for our confidence in this dumb friend is so great that we do not dread exposure when we spre[a]d our thoughts out as on a dissecting table. I feel as much affection for this book as I could a dog." (3)

Lyons entered unwittingly upon immortality. He could hardly have predicted that the volume of his meditations would someday become public, and, not anticipating future readers, he wrote in earnest. "Here I can joke & see no one sneer at my nonsense, can dilate upon my own feelings and thoughts and not be chilled by apathy or inattention. I run no danger of being misunderstood and offend no one by going beyond their own circle of comprehension." (4)

It is his raw honesty that makes Lyons's pages so refreshing--and makes us feel like voyeurs violating his privacy. Unlike the commonplace books favored by many of the mostly female diarists of his day, Joseph Lyons did not cut out and paste in the sayings of others, newspaper stories, and clip art. Nor did he parrot pious thoughts and platitudes. In this safe space where no eyes would pry, he wrestled with ideas like Jacob with the angel. He copied verses of his poems, confided scandalous thoughts, and revisited the past, giving the volume the sense of a novel complete with flashbacks. He wrote in such a disarming, frank, and self-deprecating way that only the old paper, faded ink, curious spellings, and obscure references attest to its antiquity.

As time went by, he reread what he had written and commented on how naive he had been just a year or so before. In a fit of passion or remorse, he (or others after him) crossed out certain passages, and even tore out pages. Perhaps this self-editing suggests he really expected that others would read his diary, or he may have been simply embarrassed by his outbursts. Mainly mea culpas, explosions of guilt over spending his father's money with nothing to show for it, Lyons's deletions are frequently followed by a new plan of work, a schedule of books to read, and studies to pursue.

Lyons's voice is stunningly modern, the meditations of a sensitive young man in the throes of finding himself. If we read the diary as a coming of age tale, its climax falls on the protagonist's birthday, December 7, 1834, when Joseph declares in a sweeping hand: "This day Makes me a man. I am 21." Lyons is so young, and so American, he marks his coming of age on the secular calendar, not recalling that in Jewish terms he had become a man--a "son of the commandments"--on his bar mitzvah day, at age thirteen.

While it may be Lyons's universality that appeals, it is his particularity that makes the diary valuable to historians. In this it recalls the diary of another Jewish adolescent, who recorded her thoughts in a hiding place in Amsterdam during World War II. While Lyons's circumstances had none of the historic import of Anne Frank's, his journal, like hers, is a moving testament to a life that ended soon after the ink stopped flowing from the pen.

Lyons's diary allows access into his rich interior world and the turbulent society he inhabited. The nullification movement, which would ultimately lead to secession and civil war, was born on his doorstep; the religious dissent that would soon split the religion of his ancestors between Orthodox and Reform arose in his hometown. That both of these movements, Reform and secession, took root and had their fullest flowering in Joseph's day and in his native city makes his diary doubly fascinating.

Charleston, South Carolina, held a unique place in the life of America's Jews, and had been building in this direction since its founding in 1670. The colony's Fundamental Constitutions, drafted in 1669 by philosopher and physician John Locke, secretary to Carolina Lord Proprietor Anthony Ashley Cooper, had explicitly welcomed "Jews, Heathens, and other Dissenters" (anyone except Catholics) to settle in Carolina and establish a church. Jews were appreciated for their commercial connections, as were Huguenots, and because they counted as Europeans in a colony that was becoming increasingly black. The same charter that reached out to Jews and Christian dissenters also sanctioned racial slavery, and by 1708 captive Africans outnumbered people of European descent.

In 1697, the colonial governor "naturalized" four Jewish men--"aliens of the Jewish nation"--along with sixty Huguenots, members of the French Reformed Church, granting them rights of citizenship. (5) Jews could own land and as property owners they were eligible to vote. True, South Carolina election law became increasingly restrictive through the eighteenth century, yet it remained notoriously lax in enforcement. (6) In 1774, a young immigrant to South Carolina named Francis Salvador became the first professing Jew in America elected to a legislative assembly--the Provincial Congress--and two years later was the first Jewish patriot to die in the American Revolution. Members of Charleston's Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1749, went on in 1784 to organize the country's first Hebrew Benevolent Society and in 1801 its first Hebrew Orphan Society. (7) By 1800, Charleston was home to the largest Jewish population in North America--some five hundred Jews noted for their high degree of integration into the mainstream, and for the wealth and prominence of their upper ranks.

It was in this widely accepted, successful Jewish community that American Judaism's first homegrown reform movement would emerge. As a youngster whose father was on the governing council of Beth Elohim, Joseph no doubt was aware of the activities of Isaac Harby, Abraham Moise, Jr., and the Reformed Society of Israelites they helped bring into being. Journalist, teacher, and playwright, Harby was a respected member of Charleston's intelligentsia. Sons and daughters of the city's elite, both Jewish and Gentile, attended his academy, along with a few indigent students paid for by the Hebrew Orphan Society. His play Alberti was seen by President James Monroe when he visited the city in 1819. Harby and other reform leaders were young, American born Jews who had grown up in an atmosphere of tolerance, and wanted to Americanize their ancient faith in order to save it. (8)

By the time Lyons returned to his hometown in January 1833, after several years in Columbia, South Carolina, the Reformed Society had lost the leadership of Isaac Harby and was in decline, though its members may still have been meeting separately from Beth Elohim. (9) Abraham Moise had published a new prayer book, as well as a posthumous collection of Harby's writing (10)--a copy of which sat on Lyons's bookshelf. (In the...

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