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We Called Him Rabbi Abraham

Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History

Gary Phillip Zola

Publication Year: 2014

Over the course of American history, Jews have held many American leaders in high esteem, but they maintain a unique emotional bond with Abraham Lincoln. From the time of his presidency to the present day, American Jews have persistently viewed Lincoln as one of their own, casting him as a Jewish sojourner and, in certain respects, a Jewish role model. This pioneering compendium— The first volume of annotated documents to focus on the history of Lincoln’s image, influence, and reputation among American Jews— considers how Lincoln acquired his exceptional status and how, over the past century and a half, this fascinating relationship has evolved.

Organized into twelve chronological and thematic chapters, these little-known primary source documents—many never before published and some translated into English for the first time—consist of newspaper clippings, journal articles, letters, poems, and sermons, and provide insight into a wide variety of issues relating to Lincoln’s Jewish connection. Topics include Lincoln’s early encounters with Central European Jewish immigrants living in the Old Northwest; Lincoln’s Jewish political allies; his encounters with Jews and the Jewish community as President; Lincoln’s response to the Jewish chaplain controversy; General U. S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11 expelling “Jews, as a class” from the Military Department of Tennessee; the question of amending the U.S. Constitution to legislate the country’s so-called Christian national character; and Jewish eulogies after Lincoln’s assassination. Other chapters consider the crisis of conscience that arose when President Andrew Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning for Lincoln on the festival of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), a day when Jewish law enjoins Jews to rejoice and not to mourn; Lincoln’s Jewish detractors contrasted to his boosters; how American Jews have intentionally “Judaized” Lincoln ever since his death; the leading role that American Jews have played in in crafting Lincoln’s image and in preserving his memory for the American nation; American Jewish reflections on the question “What Would Lincoln Do?”; and how Lincoln, for America’s Jewish citizenry, became the avatar of America’s highest moral aspirations.

With thoughtful chapter introductions that provide readers with a context for the annotated documents that follow, this volume provides a fascinating chronicle of American Jewry’s unfolding historical encounter with the life and symbolic image of Abraham Lincoln, shedding light on how the cultural interchange between American ideals and Jewish traditions influences the dynamics of the American Jewish experience.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

Those who are born and raised in Illinois understand from an early age, almost by osmosis, that they live in the state that claims Abraham Lincoln as its favorite son. There can be little doubt that the root of my interest in Abraham Lincoln comes from the fact that my formative years—the first two decades of my life—were spent in the “Land of Lincoln,” where the sixteenth president’s name and image are ubiquitous. A...

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Introduction: Abraham Lincoln and American Jewry

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pp. 1-8

On Wednesday, April 19, 1865, Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, a prominent lawyer, Jewish communal leader, and longtime activist in the Republican Party, ascended the pulpit of Beth Israel Synagogue on Green Street in Louisville, Kentucky, to participate in the congregation’s obsequies for Abraham Lincoln. He began his lament with these remarkable words: “You often called him, jocosely, Rabbi Abraham, as if he were one...

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1. Immigrants and the Old Northwest: Lincoln’s First Encounters with American Jewry

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pp. 9-43

In the 1830s, dramatic demographic changes transformed American Jewry. The Jewish population began to grow, and prominent centers of Jewish life sprang up west of the Eastern Seaboard. By the 1860s, cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Louisville, and San Francisco each had between 800 and 2,000 Jewish citizens. Abraham Lincoln’s political ascendancy occurred at this very time, when the immigrant...

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2. “The Most Favored Family Visitor at the White House”: The Enigmatic Relationship between Lincoln and Isachar Zacharie, M.D.

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pp. 44-71

One of the most celebrated and intriguing of President Lincoln’s many contacts with Jews during his years in the White House was the extraordinary relationship he had with a fascinating chiropodist named Isachar Zacharie (1827–1900).1 Writing in 1951, Bertram W. Korn, the pioneering scholar of American Jewry and the Civil War, described Zacharie as one of Abraham Lincoln’s “most enigmatic intimates.”2 Who was...

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3. Lincoln and the Chaplaincy Controversy

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pp. 72-90

Three significant and highly publicized controversies arose during Lincoln’s presidency that captured the attention of American Jewry: the so-called chaplaincy debate; General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous order expelling all Jewish citizens from the Military Department of Tennessee; and the rise of a political movement that hoped to declare the United States a Christian nation by amending the text of the...

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4. Lincoln and the Revocation of General Orders No. 11

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pp. 91-116

Less than three months after Reverend Jacob Frankel’s appointment brought the chaplaincy controversy to a satisfactory conclusion for the American Jewish community, and just two days after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln adjudicated the most notorious anti-Jewish act in American history. This extraordinary event, known as Grant’s “General Orders No. 11,” resulted in the first and only time in...

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5. Lincoln and the Movement to Christianize the U.S. Constitution

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pp. 117-137

During the years that Lincoln was in the White House, a third controversy arose that deeply concerned many leaders in the American Jewish community. This issue began to emerge in the early months of 1861, even before President-elect Lincoln formally took office, when a small religious synod called the “Covenanters”—a Christian denomination that split off from the Presbyterian church in 1809—met in Allegheny...

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6. “A Great Man in Israel Has Fallen”: American Jewry Mourns Lincoln

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pp. 138-177

On Saturday morning, April 15, 1865, as the American people awoke and began their day, the shocking news of the president’s assassination began to spread. Throughout the nation, many Jews were making their way to their synagogues; the day was not only the Jewish Sabbath but also the fifth day of the joyous Passover festival. American Jews had conducted their Passover seders in their homes on the evenings of April 10...

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7. Conflicting Obligations: Shavuot and the National Day of Humiliation and Mourning

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pp. 178-190

On April 21, 1865, a nine-car funeral train, draped in the black habiliments of mourning, began a 1,700-mile trip that would carry Abraham Lincoln’s remains from Washington, D.C., to the site of his final resting place at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. American clerics, politicians, and communal leaders continued to deliver eulogies and tributes to Lincoln, especially in major cities where the public...

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8. Criticisms and Commendations: Conflicting Views on the Lincoln Presidency

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pp. 191-226

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, amid the many personal memoirs and reminiscences relating to Lincoln and his career recorded during this era, one finds a small array of noteworthy reflections that indicate that Lincoln’s peers did not fully appreciate his importance while he was alive. For example, nearly four decades after Lincoln’s death, Carl Christian Schurz—a Republican activist and the first...

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9. Memorializing and Judaizing Lincoln

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pp. 227-266

The process of memorializing, dignifying, and ultimately transforming Lincoln into a national icon took place incrementally and over the course of many decades. Historians have noted how the American people’s perception of Lincoln has steadily evolved in response to the ever-changing needs, interests, and priorities of the nation. Or, as the distinguished American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley famously observed, “present...

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10. “His Name Will Ever Be Green in Your Hearts”: Jews and the Cultural Preservation of Lincoln’s Legacy

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pp. 267-308

As we have seen, rabbis and Jewish leaders joined with their fellow citizens in eulogizing Lincoln after his assassination. Similarly, American Jews played an active role in the renaissance of interest in Lincoln’s life, which would ultimately lead to his virtual apotheosis toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth century. During this time, American Jews not only celebrated Lincoln...

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11. “Lincoln! Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour!” Lincoln as a Moral Compass for American Jews

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pp. 309-353

Shortly after the end of World War I, at a time when the nation’s love for Lincoln was in full bloom, an interesting poem authored by Kenyon West appeared in an anthology with a title that implied the volume’s contents were sacred writings: The Book of Lincoln.

Lincoln! “Thou shouldst be living at this hour!”
Thy reach of vision—prophet thou and seer—

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12. Lincoln Miscellany

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pp. 354-391

By paraphrasing the words that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim used in 1883 to describe the heroes of France, a contemporary scholar of sociology summarized Abraham Lincoln’s status in the collective memory of the American people. Lincoln is “America’s universal man: changing and remaining the same; standing beside the people and above the people; a reflection of and model for them—at once behind, above, and...

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pp. 392-396

Toward the end of Philip Roth’s blockbuster novel Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander Portnoy is reminiscing about a field trip he had taken to the courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, when he was in eighth grade. He recalls that there were two statues near the courthouse, one of George Washington and the other of Abraham Lincoln. Portnoy then offers his thoughts on these two great American presidents: “Washington, I must...


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pp. 397-442


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pp. 443-459

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About the Author, Back Cover

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Gary Phillip Zola is a professor of the American Jewish experience at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. He also serves as the executive director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and as editor of the...

E-ISBN-13: 9780809332939
E-ISBN-10: 0809332930
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332922
Print-ISBN-10: 0809332922

Page Count: 520
Illustrations: 59
Publication Year: 2014