Reviewed by: Ch, Capt Mordechai Zev Hecht, USAFR
“You are feeling badly and ‘This too Shall Pass away.’ Never fear.” These are the exact words President Abraham Lincoln sent to his campaign manager, Norman B. Judd, following his defeat in the epic 1858 Senate contest. The phrase “This too shall pass” came from an eastern folktale attributed to King Solomon. Judd’s disappointment would indeed soon pass away because within six weeks Lincoln would be proposed as a possible presidential candidate in the 1860 election, and this time, he would be victorious.
Fascinating anecdotes like this one make this book priceless in my eyes. The average person on the street knows so little about early American history, and they are surely unaware of the deep and important relationship our early American leaders had with Jews, Torah, Jewish sentiments, and core Jewish values, such as this one.
Authors Jonathan D. Sarna, Professor at Brandeis University and Benjamin Shappel, founder of the Shappel Manuscript Foundation, do an outstanding job recording and beautifully laying out countless letters and photos emblematic of the relationship between Jews and early American government and establishment figures. One antisemitic myth is deconstructed particularly well – the fact that so many Jews were heavily active as pro abolitionists, people who worked tirelessly to end slavery in America, something which of course become Lincoln’s calling card.
Another fascinating encounter recorded between President Lincoln and early Jewish Americans was of another Abraham, a devout Jew and Republican named Abraham Kohn, described by one of the newspapers at the time as “Hebrew of the Hebrews”. Upon Lincoln’s election, Kohn sent his new friend a gift, which was “gratefully accepted“ by Lincoln as he embarked to Washington to be sworn in as president. The gift was an American flag with verses 4-9 of the first chapter of the Biblical book of Joshua painted elaborately upon it, including the words: “Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy G-d is with thee, withersoever thou goest”. A message so apt for a new leader about to cross the country to take up his new duties under the threat of looming war. This flag now rests in the Chicago History Museum.
One section of the book which warms the heart and is particularly fascinating for Jews in the US military is a chapter on the Jewish soldiers at war in 1866. A riveting tale is told of a civil war Passover seder in Virginia. Although soldiers were generally provided for by the Army, religious items and specialty goods had to be arranged by “sutlers”, outside vendors, who accommodated the soldiers with all sorts of goods.
“The regiment had a group of some 20 Jews who united in request to their commanding officer for relief from duty in order that they be able to keep the holiday, which he readily acceded to. About the middle of the morning erev Pesach [eve of Passover] …a supply train arrived…with Haggadahs, prayer books and piles of matzah. Horseradish we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend far exceeded anything our forefathers enjoyed…”
There in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends and bubby’s gefilte fish, they consecrated the holiday as good soldiers and devoted Jews. This is just a peek into the window of this fascinating book that sheds light on a century and more of Jewish life in early America. In my eyes, this book is a must read for every proud Jewish American.
Originally published in the Purim 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.