Marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the New-York Historical Society will present the exhibition Lincoln and the Jews, on view March 20 through June 7, 2015. Through several never-before-exhibited original writings by Lincoln and his Jewish contemporaries, the exhibition will bring to light Lincoln’s little-known relationship with the Jewish community and its lasting implications for Lincoln, for America, and for Jews. The exhibition is inspired by the publication of Lincoln and the Jews: A History (Thomas Dunne Books, March 2015), by Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Benjamin Shapell, founder of The Shapell Manuscript Foundation.
Presented in collaboration with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the exhibition will premiere at the New-York Historical Society before traveling to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. The exhibition is guest curated by Dr. Ann Meyerson, independent museum curator, under the leadership of Benjamin Shapell. Harold Holzer, the Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, serves as Chief Historical Advisor.
Lincoln and the Jews will illustrate how America changed as its Jewish population surged from 3,000 to 150,000, and how Abraham Lincoln, more than any of his predecessors, changed America in order to accelerate acceptance of Jews as part of the mosaic of American life. Showcasing more than 80 artifacts documenting the connection between Lincoln and Jews – including letters, official appointments, pardons, and personal notes, as well as Bibles, paintings and Judaica – Lincoln and the Jews will trace the events in Lincoln’s life through the lens of his Jewish friends, such as his fellow lawyer and politician Abraham Jonas and his enigmatic chiropodist (podiatrist) and confidant Issachar Zacharie, as well as Lincoln’s profound interest in and connection to the Old Testament. The exhibition will paint a portrait of a politician and president who worked for the inclusion of Jews as equals in America – a leader truly committed to “malice toward none.”
The exhibition is designed to move visitors chronologically through Lincoln’s life, beginning with items and documents from before his presidential inauguration and ending with his untimely death in 1865. Lincoln’s relationship with Abraham Jonas, a Jewish member of the Illinois State Legislature whom Lincoln called “one of my most valued friends,” will be explored in the show, with an 1860 letter on view from Jonas that warns of an assassination plot before Lincoln’s first inauguration, rumors of which Jonas learned from his extended family in the South. Also on display is the illustration of a Hebrew flag that Abraham Kohn, a leader of the Jewish community in Chicago, bestowed upon then-president-elect Lincoln shortly before his departure from Springfield for his inauguration in Washington. Quoting the Book of Joshua, it urged Lincoln to “Be strong and of a good courage… Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
Lincoln often took unpopular stands in defense of Jews and Judaism, and the exhibition explores Lincoln’s two most important wartime interactions with the Jewish community. One was his role in amending the chaplaincy law so that Jews and other non-Christians might serve as chaplains; he also appointed the first-ever Jewish military chaplains in the United States. The other was his countermanding of General Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious General Orders No. 11 that expelled “Jews as a class” from the territory then under his command. Lincoln had the order revoked as soon as he learned of it, explaining that he did “not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” Lincoln also supported the promotion and decoration of Jewish Civil War soldiers. On view in the exhibition will be dueling pistols presented to the Civil War hero Edward S. Salomon by the Citizens of Cook County, Illinois in 1867. Salomon led the so-called “Jewish Company” from Illinois and was commended for his battlefield bravery, exhibited at the Battle of Gettysburg and beyond.
In 1862, just as he was preparing to deliver the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, Lincoln was treated by podiatrist Issachar Zacharie, who soon became a close confidant. Lincoln entrusted Zacharie with several secret missions, even sending him to New Orleans to promote pro-Union sentiments among his Jewish “countrymen.” Zacharie also worked to win Jewish voters to Lincoln’s side in the 1864 election. In return, when Savannah was restored to the Union, he sought Lincoln’s permission to visit his family there. In a remarkable 1865 letter bluntly titled “About Jews,” which is on view in the exhibition, Lincoln instructed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to grant passage for Zacharie. He also ordered a hearing for a dismissed Jewish provost marshall (head of the military police) whom, he wrote, “has suffered for us & served us well.” In an era when anti-Semitism was commonplace, Lincoln openly sided with these Jews, against the advice of his Secretary of War. Continue reading