September 2, Mordecai Noah Day
Yesterday evening, Grand Island Town Council passed a resolution, making September 2nd “Mordecai Manuel Noah Day” in our community. Noah was a writer, a philosopher, a philanthropist, and the first American-born Jew to achieve national prominence. In 1825, he proposed establishing on Grand Island a refuge for the Jewish diaspora. He called his planned city “Ararat”, after the mountain on which Noah’s ark first touched land.
Like the Noah from the Bible, Mordecai Noah was also a visionary. He believed that his people, who had long suffered oppression, discrimination, and violence, deserved a place where they could live in peace and safety. He believed, for a short time at least, that Grand Island was that place.
Noah never built Ararat
Ararat was never built. All that remains of Noah’s grand vision is a ceremonial cornerstone, presently on display in the Erie County Historical Museum. Before that the cornerstone sat in an empty patch of land near East River that was advertised to tourists on their way to Niagara Falls as the ruins of the “Lost City of Ararat.”
It may seem strange then that our council has decided to acknowledge and honor a man whose plans ended in failure: not only did Ararat never come to fruition; Noah himself was never able to set foot on Grand Island. The closest he came was the Tonawanda shore; on his lone visit to Western New York, he could not find anyone to ferry him across the river, to inspect the 2500 acres of land he’d purchased on the Island for his Utopia. Surely then there is some other historical figure more worthy of our approbation?
Yet we honor what Noah represents
Our decision was not based on the outcome of Noah’s plans, but on the power carried by those plans. We woke this week to learn of yet another horror: images from Brussels showed us the ugliness, the evil of hatred. Even here, living on the world’s longest unguarded international border, enjoying the safety, peace, and prosperity of this blessed land, we cannot escape the reality that these are dark and difficult days. As in Noah’s time, there remains too much intolerance and useless strife stemming from that intolerance.
On a Christmas morning at the height of the Civil War, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lamented, “Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” As we live with the cold remorselessness of intolerance and terror, we appreciate the discouragement Longfellow expresses. And we long for a better day.
May Grand Island forever be a place of mutual respect and tolerance
That is why we honor Mordecai Noah. When darkness is all around us, we must respond with light, with hope, with tolerance. Noah believed that Grand Island could be a haven, a place where respect and good feelings and acceptance flowered, where peace was plentiful. We believe Grand Island is that place today. We honor Noah, for the nobility of his purpose. We honor him for believing that no matter how vicious or fierce the oppressors, we can defeat them.
In a world where terrorists and tyrants attempt to crush freedom, Grand Island is proud to be a place where the purest American values – freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of opportunity – are afforded to every citizen. I was proud to have representatives on hand Monday from neighboring Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities of faith who expressed their support. It is my sincere hope that this September 2nd we use the memory of Mordecai Noah as an exemplar of the values and aspirations that make our lovely, wooded island home, such a wonderful place to live. We are grateful to be a small part of his legacy.
Happy Good Friday to you all! Regardless of your chosen faith (or even your choice not to believe), may this weekend, that so many hold sacred, be a time of peace and reflection in your home.
With warmest regards,
-as first appeared in the Island Dispatch