Hon­est Abe, Heeb Fave

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By ADAM MENDELSOHN Adam Mendelsohn is the co-ed­i­tor, with Jonathan D. Sarna, of “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” (NYU Press, 2010).

Adam Mendelsohn on the en­dur­ing ap­peal of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln.

‘He,” a somber Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in­toned af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Abra­ham Lin­coln, “is a sin-of­fer­ing for our in­iq­ui­ties.” This sen­ti­ment, ex­pressed in a black-draped con­gre­ga­tion in Cincin­nati, was echoed in count­less other memo­rial ser­vices across the North. Peace had been de­clared but days be­fore; now, syn­a­gogues re­cited the Kad­dish for the fallen pres­i­dent. In New York City, Shearith Is­rael broke with cus­tom by chant­ing a Sephardic mourn­ing prayer it had never be­fore said for a gen­tile. Jews were in the midst of cel­e­brat­ing Passover; now Lin­coln, like Moses, had suc­cumbed at the thresh­old of the Promised Land. In Cincin­nati, Wise ended his ser­mon with words that may have stunned his hushed au­di­ence (we have no record of the re­sponse). “Abra­ham Lin­coln,” he pro­claimed, “be­lieved [him­self] to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He sup­posed [him­self] to be a descen­dant of He­brew parent­age. He said so in my pres­ence. And, in­deed, he pre­served nu­mer­ous fea­tures of the He­brew race, both in coun­te­nance and char­ac­ter.”

Those who seek to cul­ti­vate this claim will find it to be rooted in thin soil. Ef­forts to con­struct a He­braic lin­eage that con­nects Lin­coln’s lonely log cabin in Ken­tucky with Mount Si­nai must rely more on wish­ful think­ing than on fact. Like­wise, there are more parochial ex­pla­na­tions for Lin­coln’s rhetoric, lush with bib­li­cal im­agery, than a Jewish up­bring­ing. Lin­coln’s friend­ship with Jews re­veals rel­a­tively lit­tle be­yond an ab­sence of prej­u­dice. His most in­ti­mate Jewish ac­quain­tance seems to have been Isachar Zacharie, his self-pro­mot­ing chi­ropodist, whom he en­trusted with a se­cret diplo­matic mis­sion dur­ing the war (in sub­se­quent retellings, Zacharie has be­come the most, per­haps the only, cel­e­brated foot doc­tor in Jewish his­tory). And Lin­coln’s re­spon­sive­ness to Jewish con­cerns dur­ing the Civil War — his sup­port for ef­forts to amend a con­gres­sional statute that barred non-Chris­tians from the mil­i­tary chap­laincy, and his rapid coun­ter­mand­ing of an anti-Semitic or­der is­sued by his most suc­cess­ful gen­eral — be­speak his ge­nius as a pres­i­dent rather than tribal sol­i­dar­ity.

In­stead, Wise’s words — al­most cer­tainly one of his oc­ca­sional flights of fancy — are more in­trigu­ing for what they re­veal about how Jews have thought about Lin­coln since his death than for what they can tell us about Lin­coln him­self. Wise’s ef­forts to claim the de­parted pres­i­dent as a Jew were an early ex­am­ple of an in­cip­i­ent “cult of Lin­coln” that has been em­bel­lished over time. Al­though Jews are far from alone in idol­iz­ing Lin­coln, he has been, as Beth Wenger (di­rec­tor of the Jewish Stud­ies pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and his­to­rian of Amer­i­can Jewry) has demon­strated, a ver­sa­tile sym­bol for syn­a­gogues, so­cial­ists and Zion­ists since 1865. Amer­i­can Jews have imag­ined and reimag­ined Lin­coln in a va­ri­ety of ways to demon­strate their pa­tri­o­tism, be­long­ing and align­ment with Amer­i­can val­ues. Oth­ers have fo­cused their at­ten­tion on the hand­ful of Jews who en­tered Lin­coln’s or­bit, bask­ing in the re­flected rays of his great­ness. Why else, for ex­am­ple, do we know (and care) that it was Ed­ward Rose­wa­ter, a Jew, who trans­mit­ted the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion by tele­graph from the of­fice of the War Depart­ment? By as­so­ci­at­ing them­selves with the revered fig­ure of “Fa­ther Abra­ham,” Jews (and oth­ers) have bur­nished their own im­age and self-per­cep­tion.

In­deed Wise’s memo­rial ser­mon it­self sug­gests how fickle and mal­leable mem­ory and com­mem­o­ra­tion can be. Af­ter all, his eu­logy rep­re­sented a strik­ing volte-face. In 1860, Wise had op­posed Lin­coln’s can­di­dacy for pres­i­dent, de­scrib­ing him as a “coun­try squire who would look queer in the White House with his coun­try man­ner.” As re­cently as a year and a half be­fore the as­sas­si­na­tion, the rabbi had pub­licly iden­ti­fied with the “Cop­per­head” fac­tion of the Demo­cratic Party, known for the fe­roc­ity of its at­tacks on Lin­coln’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Al­though his pol­i­tics were more rad­i­cal than those of many of his co-re­li­gion­ists, his pref­er­ence for the Demo­cratic Party (rather than Lin­coln’s Republicans) was not atyp­i­cal of Amer­i­can Jews, par­tic­u­larly in the elec­tion of 1860. Dur­ing Lin­coln’s life­time, Jews, and many oth­ers in the Union, were am­biva­lent about their wartime pres­i­dent; fol­low­ing his death, they joined their coun­try­men in pro­nounc­ing Fa­ther Abra­ham a sainted mar­tyr, and at times claimed him as one of their own.


Lin­coln the Jew: He was not of the faith, but has been claimed re­peat­edly.

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