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Reconnecting to the Lincoln Connection
"We are coming," the chorus of a famous Civil War song declares, "coming our union to restore, we are coming, Father Abraham, with 300,000 more." Like hundreds of thousands of other American citizens, Jews in the north rallied around President Lincoln's call to preserve America as one nation during the Civil War.
What compelled so many Jews to respond to Lincoln's call to arms and a still greater number to support the Union from behind the lines? It was patriotism. For others, it was the call to stand up for freedom and break the chains of slavery. Over time, it became a response to Lincoln himself and what he had come to mean for the American Jewish community during those critical war years.
As the war dragged on, American Jews recognized in Lincoln a genuine love of the humanity of all people. Whether it was his early principled stand against the xenophobic Know Nothing Party, his private letters to the families of fallen soldiers, his historic emancipation of the slaves or his soaring oratory, Jews saw a person of the people and for the people. Lincoln's support among American Jews came from across the communal spectrum, from the most illustrious Sephardic families to recently arrived German Jewish immigrants.
Lincoln was the first president who actually had Jewish friends. According to Bertram W. Korn, the leading scholar of American Jews and the Civil War, "Lincoln was a close friend and political associate of Abraham Jonas, a Jew from Quincy, Illinois, and their correspondence reveals a warm mutual appreciation and common political loyalties." In 1860, Lewis N. Dembitz, uncle of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, helped spearhead Lincoln's nomination at the Republican convention. Lincoln's foot doctor and personal confidante, Isachar Zacharie, was a Jew from England.
When asked in March 1863 if he would consider supporting the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, Lincoln responded: "I myself have a regard for the Jews. My chiropodist is a Jew, and he has so many times 'put me upon my feet' that I would have no objection to giving his countrymen 'a leg up.' "
Even the telegraph operator who transmitted the Gettysburg Address to the world was a young Jewish man, Edward Rosewater, who had emigrated in 1854 from Bohemia to Cleveland.
It was at the national level, however, where Lincoln had his most important historical relations with Jews. In December 1861, Arnold Fishel of New York, a representative of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, met with Lincoln to ask him to overturn a law that prevented Jewish clergy from serving as chaplains in the Union Army. Seven months later, at Lincoln's urging, a new law was passed by Congress empowering rabbis to serve alongside priests and ministers in the military chaplaincy.
In December 1862, Ulysses S. Grant signed a military order expelling all Jews from what was then the Department of Tennessee, that also included Kentucky and the northern parts of states further to the south on the grounds that Jewish commercial activity was interfering with military business. It was, of course, met with stiff opposition by American Jews, who sent delegations to meet with Lincoln. "I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners," Lincoln wrote, and he successfully worked to rescind the order.
When Grant ran for president in 1868, the question of a "Jewish vote" was raised for the first time in the media. Grant went to great lengths to assure Jews that he was not an anti-Semite, and ultimately demonstrated that he was "good for the Jews," despite his wartime expulsion order.
One of the Civil War's great coincidences was that it ended on the first night of Passover in April 1865. Many seders disbanded because of the emotion of the moment. When the news broke on the fifth day of Passover that Lincoln had been felled by an assassin's bullet, Jews along with their countrymen went into deep mourning. Eulogies for Lincoln were given in synagogues across the land. In one case, Isaac Mayer Wise, leader of the nascent Reform movement, alluded to the possibility that Jewish sympathy for Lincoln was tied to the possibility that Lincoln was partly of Jewish origin, a claim the president's family disputed.
The famed Civil War historian, Allan Nevins, wrote that Lincoln "had been a warm and constant friend" of the Jewish community. Jews saw in the slain president a man who embodied the transcendent American idea of freedom, and who ultimately sacrificed his own life for the common humanity of all people without distinction to race or creed.
With the election of this nation's first African-American president and the simultaneous refocusing on Lincoln's legacy, Jews, too, should take a moment to remember "Father Abraham" and his vision of "a more perfect union."
Lance J. Sussman is senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.