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Abraham Lincoln and the Jews Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Friday, July 4, 2014

Who was the most popular and beloved American President? Most give that honor to Abraham Lincoln because of his leadership during the Civil War and his eloquence. At the time of Lincoln’s assassination and through the decades afterwards, that was certainly the case in most of the American Jewish community.

Abraham Lincoln was eulogized in the Jewish community as Rabbi Abraham, as if he were a Jew, and was called “Abraham, the child of our father Abraham”. Though the Jewish community in the United States was small at the time of his death, perhaps around 150,000 total, the Jewish community participated fully in the nation’s grief and in the efforts to memorialize the president, including the fund raising to build the Lincoln Memorial. In May of 1865 the American Israelite, I.M.Wise’s Cincinnati newspaper ran an article inviting members of Hebrew congregations to join their fellow Israelites in “this great and holy work”.

What is even more interesting and perhaps a little surprising, is that Eastern European immigrants who arrived decades after the end of the Civil War, still felt a deep connection with Lincoln. At the 80th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, Jewish speakers spoke about being those who had also been in bondage, not here but in other countries, referring to Czarist Russia, and finding meaning in Lincoln’s efforts for freedom and liberty.

IN the 1880’s with the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in some segments of the country, and Jewish social exclusion at clubs and hotels, Jews expressed hope that the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday would be a reminder of America’s promise of liberty for all. The inclusion of rabbis as speakers at community Lincoln Day festivities held out the promise of full inclusion in American society as had Lincoln’s appointment of Jewish chaplains during the Civil War period.

With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment culminating in the restrictive immigration laws following World War I, Lincoln was held up as hero of more tolerant views. Said one writer in a 1917 article called “Lincoln and the Immigrant”, “Lincoln makes the immigrants feel this is their country as well as the country of the native born far more than any other American.” Even Lincoln’s first name, the name of the Biblical patriarch was a help to the Jewish community, as illustrated in a song from this period:

You say you’re ridiculed by all the boys in school

But when they call you Abie don’t you mind

There was a man named Abraham not many years ago

A better man you’ll never find

We didn’t have the power to make you look the same

The best we could do was to give you his name.

We have evidence of Jewish families naming their son’s after Abraham Lincoln as early as 1867- with the birth of Abraham Lincoln Danzinger. By the 1880’s it had become a trend and so over a twenty year period we have many Jewish figures such as:

Abraham Lincoln Fechheimer, a Cincinnati Architect from a prominent family

Abraham Lincoln Filene- from the famous department store family

Abraham Lincoln Neiman- the found of Neiman Marcus

Abraham Lincoln Erlanger- a theater manager

Abraham Lincoln Polonsky- a distinguished screenwriter

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz- a well known Chicago lawyer and political figure

Abraham Lincoln Feinberg and Abraham Lincoln Krohn- prominent American Rabbis—and Rabbi Gary Zola of the American Jewish Archives would be glad to share a long list of others with you as well. ( Our member Lincoln Endelman was born on the 4th of July and thinks that perhaps that is why his parents gave him the name they did)

Rabbi Lance Sussman, a classmate of mine from the Hebrew Union College, who went on to earn a PhD in American Jewish History, was very disappointed when Steven Spielberg’s movie, LINCOLN, did not bear witness to this close relationship between the Jews and Lincoln. He went through the movie scene by scene making suggestions of where Jewish characters should have been included. Let me just share three with you.

When at the beginning of the movie, the African American troops were talking about the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, and we see a brief depiction, couldn’t they have mentioned General Frederick C. Salomon, one of the Union commanders in this battle, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia?

What about the scene in the telegraph office at the War Department? Why couldn’t Spielberg have included Edward Rosewater ( born Rosenwasser in Bohemia) who was the twenty something year old telegraph operator who sent out the Emancipation Proclamation from that office on January 1, 1863.

Finally, given all the scenes of family life at the White House, why didn’t we have a glimpse of Dr. Isachar Zacharie, an English physician who documents from the time report, was “perhaps the most favored family visitor at the White House.”

Rabbi Sussman admits that it was an outstanding film nonetheless, but wishes that the story of the Jews in America, a story that predates the great migration of the end of the 19th century, could have had a moment or two of airtime.

ON this July 4th we are here preparing to watch our fireworks and to testify that the love affair between Jews and the United States is ongoing.

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