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Daughters (and Sons) of the Revolution

August 27, 2009 By:
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I didn't know what to think when An American Experience: Adeline Moses Loeb (1876-1953) and Her Early American Jewish Ancestors showed up on my desk. The book is without question a beautiful object in itself, bearing the proportions of an expensive art book and with the obvious production values to match. It's been distributed by Syracuse University Press, which I know to be a reputable outfit (even though the publisher is listed as the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York). And the introduction's done by Eli N. Evans, a historian of the Jewish South and author of two of my favorite books on the subject, a biography of Judah P. Benjamin, who served as Jefferson Davis' Secretary of State during the Confederacy, and The Provincials, a personal history of Jewish life in the Southern states.

This last element got me over any lingering uncertainties I might have had -- even past the whiff of (fairly costly) vanity publication that emanated from the book. The doubts first arose because one of the contributors to this thick volume -- there are four essays that make up the text proper, plus lots of wonderful illustrations -- happens to be Margaret Loeb Kempner, the only daughter of Adeline and her husband Carl M. Loeb, one of Wall Street's undeniable wizards of the 1940s and '50s.

And before Evans' introduction even appears, there's testimony from yet another Loeb -- John L. Jr. -- who's penned a foreword filled with sweet reminiscences of his grandmother Adeline. He credits her with instilling him, through her many tales, with his own love of genealogy, which was a major catalyst for this book. (It appears he was the driving force behind the entire project, in any number of ways.)

The stories Adeline told the Loeb grandchildren were about her family's glory days in Alabama and were dispensed at New York's Plaza Hotel during its heyday in the late 1930s.

"During the Plaza luncheons, in mellifluous Southern cadences, she regaled us with tales of the 1880s when she and her four siblings lived with their parents, Alfred and Jeannette Moses, in the luxurious federal-style mansion on Perry Street, the Fifth Avenue of Montgomery, Alabama. We heard about the financial rise and fall of her father, 'Captain' Alfred Huger Moses, and the horrors of the Civil War that he and his relatives lived through. We learned that after the war, along with his brother Mordecai, he became a major figure in Alabama banking and real estate and the acknowledged pater familias of the Moses clan. With true entrepreneurial spirit he was soon the primary founder of Sheffield, but it proved to be a boomtown disaster in 1890-1891. Sheffield's downfall, coupled with the worldwide bank panic of 1893, brought financial ruin for the whole Moses family."

Adeline worked, helping out as best she could. She gave piano lessons and did secretarial work, as the family's finances limped along. But Adele's personal story did have a happy ending, and all of her grandchildren loved hearing about it. A handsome young German Jewish immigrant named Carl M. Loeb was sent by his employer to St. Louis and there found living quarters with Adeline's two maiden aunts. It was there, writes John L. Jr., that "the charming, dimpled, brown-eyed Adeline met and soon married the handsome and ambitious" young Loeb, who soon took his bride to New York City, where he set out to truly make his fortune.

It is these two stands -- one from the Moses family and their long history in the United States (longer than some non-Jewish families, the many authors note), and the other from Carl Loeb's achievements -- that make up this book's narrative. The numerous tales are as compelling as Granny Adeline's must have been and the accompanying illustrative material, much of it family photos, makes for fascinating viewing. The fact that the Moses family was a considerable one is of abiding interest to those who can't get enough of American Jewish history. That they managed to know well most of the major figures of the period only adds to the volume's worth.

John L. Loeb Jr. is now planning to honor this intertwined history by creating a teaching center that will bear the family name at Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., one of the oldest in the country and not coincidentally named for a Moses family ancestor.

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