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Chapter 1: Origins (Bridgetown, 1793-1798)
Chapter 2: From Slave to Free (Bridgetown, 1801)
Chapter 3: From Christian to Jew (Suriname, 1811-12)
Chapter 4: The Tumultuous Island (Bridgetown, 1812-1817)
Chapter 5: Synagogue Seats (New York & Philadelphia, 1793-1818)
Chapter 6: The Material of Race (London, 1815-17)
Chapter 7: Voices of Rebellion (Bridgetown, 1818-24)
Chapter 8: A Woman Valor (New York, 1817-19)
Chapter 9: This Liberal City (Philadelphia, 1818-33)
Chapter 10: Feverish Love (New York, 1819-1830)
Chapter 11: When I am Gone (New York, Barbados, London, 1830-1847)
Chapter 12: Legacies (New York and Beyond, 1841-1860)

Appendix: Family Trees

More Reviews & Interviews

Interview with Yonat Shimron, Washington Post

"Leibman highlights the fluidity of early America's racial boundaries and the multiracial threads of Jewish history..." --Publisher's Weekly

Interview with Howard Lovy of Publisher's Weekly

"...Once We Were Slaves is an engaging work of historical scholarship that follows a family through its rises and collapses of fortune and, in the process, strips away damaging misconceptions about the homogeneity of America's Jewish community." --Foreword Reviews

"A richly contextual history of multiracial Jews and their travails and triumphs in the New World." --Kirkus 

Once We Were Slaves

The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family

An obsessive genealogist and descendent of one of the most prominent Jewish families since the American Revolution, Blanche Moses firmly believed her maternal ancestors were Sephardic grandees. Yet she found herself at a dead end when it came to her grandmother’s maternal line. Using family heirlooms to unlock the mystery of Moses’s ancestors, Once We Were Slaves overturns the reclusive heiress’s assumptions about her family history to reveal that her grandmother and great-uncle, Sarah and Isaac Brandon, actually began their lives poor, Christian, and enslaved in Barbados. Tracing the siblings’ extraordinary journey throughout the Atlantic World, Leibman examines artifacts they left behind in Barbados, Suriname, London, Philadelphia, and, finally, New York, to show how Sarah and Isaac were able to transform themselves and their lives, becoming free, wealthy, Jewish, and—at times—white. While their affluence made them unusual, their story mirrors that of the largely forgotten population of mixed African and Jewish ancestry that constituted as much as ten percent of the Jewish communities in which the siblings lived, and sheds new light on the fluidity of race—as well as on the role of religion in racial shift—in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Finalist National Jewish Book Award, 2021     Available from Oxford UP.

Printable Family Trees  

Links to Color Images & Extras 

Book Club Discussion Questions










What reviewers are saying:

“This is the history of an early American Jewish family made for our times, complete with extramarital sex, mixed race descendants, economic booms and busts, lies, cover‐ups, scandals, even a deadly epidemic. Award‐winning historian Laura Leibman spent a decade unraveling the mystery at the heart of Once We Were Slaves. What she discovered will change the way American Jewish history is written.”—Jonathan D. Sarna, University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, and author of American Judaism: A History


“Marked by meticulous research and compelling writing, Once We Were Slaves provides new insight into the complex dynamics of race and religion in the early Americas. The fascinating story of Sarah and Isaac Brandon, set in the context of the worlds of people of mixed African and Jewish descent in the Atlantic world, highlights the diversity of early American Jewish communities and shows the shifting constraints and opportunities the siblings faced at the intersection of race and religion.”Judith Weisenfeld, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion, Princeton University, and author of New World A‐Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration


“Beautifully written, with clarity and unusual frankness, Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multiracial Jewish Family is also an extraordinary text on the impact of colonialism on Jewish identity. The humanity, in its failures and triumphs, of every historical figure, especially the Afro-Jewish siblings Sarah and Isaac Brandon, is brought forth poignantly without melodrama in a model of historical storytelling in which the lives of each, in a word, matters. This is a book not only to be read, but re-read, time and again.”Lewis R. Gordon, Professor of Philosophy and Judaic  Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, UCONN-Storrs, and author of Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization.

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