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Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History

by Gary Phillip Zola

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8093-3292-2
Publisher: Southern Illinois Univ.

A comprehensive collection of documents describing and characterizing the special bond between the 16th president and many American Jews before and after his death.

Zola (American Jewish Experience/Hebrew Union Coll.; The Americanization of the Jewish Prayer Book, 2008, etc.) includes introductions and contextual explanations for each of the documents he provides—a great boon for readers. The first major section is chronological, and we see Lincoln’s early relationships with Jewish store owners, a photographer (Samuel G. Alschuler), a chiropodist and some notable supporters. Zola explores the issue of having Jewish Army chaplains (Lincoln permitted this) and gives us a detailed look at the bizarre case of Gen. Grant’s 1862 expulsion of Jews from regions of the South under his jurisdiction. (He was upset about some trade problems.) Lincoln quickly changed the order. The author also examines Lincoln’s resistance to efforts to “Christianize” the Constitution. Among the most affecting pieces here are tributes to the fallen Lincoln from 1865 onward—e.g., “Thou has wound thyself lovingly around the hearts of millions with gentle ties, which even the destructive tooth of time can never loosen.” Following the assassination and its aftermath (including an account of the funeral train), Zola follows a more thematic pattern. He looks at ways of memorializing the president, at works of art and music that the president inspired (Irving Berlin and Aaron Copland are here), the views of Lincoln as a moral exemplar, and at the contributions of scholars and collectors. He shows us examples of a children’s book, some Yiddish poems honoring the president, and comments about the strong Jewish presence in the making of the recent film Lincoln. He ends with a persistent story—circulated on the Internet—that Lincoln had actually been a Jew. This Zola swiftly dismisses, noting that “all evidence [is] to the contrary.”

A rich, scholarly, instructive reminder that there’s always more to learn about Honest Abe.