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An important anniversary is being celebrated this Thursday, 200 years since Abraham Lincoln was born. Lincoln had many Jewish friends and associates from the Midwest, the state of Illinois in particular, Washington DC and New York City. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has an exhibit opening this month on the Lincoln years, 1861-1865.
Lincoln's oldest and closest colleague was Abraham Jonas (1801-1869). In 1860 Lincoln wrote to him, "You are one of my most valued friends." A native of England, Jonas joined his brother Joseph in Cincinnati in 1819. From there he moved to Kentucky and then on to Quincy, Illinois, where he met the president-to-be. In 1854, Lincoln came to Quincy and stayed with Jonas for several days.
Jonas, always interested in his friend's future, wrote to him in the summer of 1860 warning Lincoln about being seen in "Know Nothing Lodge." This group was against the increase of immigrants coming to America. Lincoln answered Jonas very forthrightly. "It was 1854 when I spoke in some hall and after speaking, you with others took me to an oyster bar." Then he returned to the Quincy House Hotel. "That I never was in," Lincoln continued, "a Know Nothing Lodge can be proved by respectable men."
Jonas was one of the first to suggest Lincoln for the presidency. In 1858 noted editor Horace Greeley came to Illinois to speak. As a leading Republican, he wanted to know who might be a good candidate. Jonas noted in a letter, "I said the gentleman I mean is Abraham Lincoln of Illinois." His suggestion fell flat, but Jonas continued to speak about Lincoln, saying prophetically, "There may be more to this suggestion than any of us think now."
As soon as Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and sworn in in March 1861, Jews answered the call for volunteers for the Union army. Six thousand immediately signed up.
One of the most interesting "Jewish" gifts received by Lincoln as he left Springfield to travel to Washington for the inauguration was from Abraham Kohn of Chicago. The two had become close friends through the years and Kohn wanted to honor his friend. An American flag was ordered and on it was embroidered in Hebrew the biblical verse "Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid nor be thou dismayed for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest" (Deuteronomy 31:6). One description of the flag states that it was actually a flag; the other indicates it was a painting of a flag.
Commodore Uriah P. Levy of the United States Navy, known for having prohibited the use of the "cat o' nine tails" as a form of punishment, purchased the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and preserved it for future generations.
When the Civil War began, Levy immediately arranged an appointment with Lincoln. According to various versions, he offered Lincoln his entire estate for the Union. When Levy died in 1862, he left a sizable part of his estate for the maintenance of Monticello. During the Civil War, a noted rabbi from New York, Morris Raphall, visited Lincoln at the White House to ask him to promote his son to the rank of lieutenant in the Union army. As it happened, the day of the visit was a day of national prayer and fasting.
Lincoln listened to the rabbi's request and caught him by surprise with an unexpected question. "As God's minister, is it not your duty to be home today to pray with your people for the success of our armies, as is being done in every loyal religious institution throughout the North?" Stuttering in reply, Raphall managed to state that his assistant was acting in his place.
As the encounter concluded, Lincoln indicated that he truly understood the rabbi's reason for being in Washington. According to one historian, the president wrote an order promoting his son, handed it to the rabbi and concluded. "Now, doctor, you can go home and do your own praying."
The greatness of the president was rooted in the fact that he permitted himself to be a part of all events - sad and joyous. Lt.-Col. Leopold C. Newman of New York was seriously wounded in a battle near Fredericksburg, Maryland in 1863, his leg shattered by grapeshot. He was carried to the National Hotel in Washington. According to the publicist Isaac Markens, Lincoln came to see Newman bearing with him a commission for a promotion to brigadier-general. Unfortunately, Newman died shortly thereafter.
At the festival given by the Jewish Women of Pittsburgh for the Sanitary Commission, the president was honored with these words.
"Abraham Lincoln, the noble pilot, called by the voice of the people to the position of danger and responsibility, when traitors' hands had directed the ship of state toward the breakers of national destruction. Nobly has he buffeted the waves of disunion, until now with the assistance of providence and our gallant army and navy he has brought us within sight of our longed for peace. His name will be synonymous with patience, honesty and justice."
Both the Union and Confederacy contained elements of anti-Jewish feelings. Gen. William T. Sherman, who burned my city of Atlanta to the ground, stated, "The country will soon swarm with dishonest Jews." In an 1861 Confederate diary, historian Harold Holzer found the following.
"The Jews are at work. Having no nationality, all wars are harvest for them... now they are scowring the country in all directions, buying all the goods they can find... These they will keep, until the prices of consumption shall raise a greedy demand for all descriptions of merchandise."
Shortly after the Civil War began, Congress passed a law stating that the chaplains can only be "regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination." The Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the national organization of American Jewry, arranged for Rabbi Arnold Fischel to meet Lincoln in the summer of 1861. Lincoln indicated he was not aware of discrimination against rabbis. On July 17, 1862, a new law authorized all religious denominations to be chaplains.
Ulysses S. Grant actually ordered Jews expelled from his jurisdiction under Order No. 11: "The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order. Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits."
Immediately after it was issued, a group of Jews from Paducah, Kentucky, led by Cesar Kaskel, sent Lincoln a telegram condemning the order as an "enormous outrage on all laws and humanity... the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it." Shortly thereafter Kaskel arrived at the White House. He showed Lincoln Order No. 11. On January 6, Grant revoked it.
Abraham Lincoln: "And so the children of Israel were driven from the land of Canaan." Cesar Kaskel of Kentucky: "Yes, and that is why we have come to Father Abraham for protection." Abraham Lincoln: "And this protection they shall have."
Adolphus Solomons, a leading citizen of Washington, suggested to Lincoln the idea of restoring European Jewry to its ancestral homeland in Palestine. The president agreed that a Jewish state in the Holy Land could be considered, then made a famous statement: "I myself have regard for the Jews. My chiropodist is a Jew and he has so many times 'put me on my feet' that I would have no objection to giving his countrymen 'a leg up.'"
Lincoln was referring to Isachar Zacharie, his foot doctor and confidant. Zacharie had Lincoln's confidence, and in the president's thinking Zacharie was a key representative of American Jewry. He and Lincoln would exchange views while Zacharie worked on the president's feet. It has been suggested that Lincoln sought Zacharie's advice on matters of state.
Documents about Lincoln exist in Hebrew. An early version of a biography of Lincoln appeared in 1956, translated by Yair Burla and published by Am Oved. When the United States Information Agency chose to make a Hebrew copy of the Gettysburg Address available worldwide - the officials selected Burla's translation.
Rabbi Henry Vidaver of New York and then St. Louis, Missouri, was the American correspondent for the Jewish magazine Magid from 1861-1866. What follows are selections from Vidaver's dispatches at the end of April 1865.
"The end of the month of April. From the time I sent you my last dispatch - mighty acts has God performed to be seen in the eyes of the citizenry of this country.
"The majority of the American population knew that the 'land of the South' had weakened and its strength waned daily with the capital, Richmond, only possessing a few more days to survive." Vidaver described the final stages of the war: "Suddenly a strong voice is heard in the land that General Lee, the Confederacy commander in chief had surrendered to General Grant, northern commander in chief. All the Confederate troops followed the lead of General Lee... The Confederacy had fallen at Appomattox and would never rise again."
Vidaver focused on the meaning of the end of the war. "This victory paved the way for the path to peace. When the announcement was made that Richmond had fallen, the entire nation in its enthusiasm called out - 'Heydad, Heydad' - Hurray, Hurray."
A week later, Magid's audience all over the world read Vidaver's tragic news: "...This was a day turned upside down. A cloudy overcast day - a day of curses for all the citizens of the USA. A voice was heard wailing - Abraham Lincoln, the president of the USA, has fallen victim to a murderer."
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