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Some of Lincoln’s best friends were Jews
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Some of Lincoln’s best friends were Jews

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whopping 16,000 books have been written about President Abraham Lincoln. But a book published last spring tells a previously untold story about Lincoln: his relationships with Jews.

Benjamin Shapell has been collecting documents relating to Lincoln and the Jews for over 35 years, housing them in the archives of the Shapell Foundation. For this year’s 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, Shapell persuaded Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, who also authored a book about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews and coedited a Civil War reader, to help organize the material so it could be shared with a wider audience.

Sarna, who is also chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, will present “Lincoln and the Jews” on Sunday, Oct. 25, at Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit JCC. 

For their project, the Internet proved a boon for Shapell and Sarna. American-Jewish newspapers from Lincoln’s time are on-line now, so for any name mentioned in a document, a search could be made in contemporary newspapers.

Their collaboration yielded Lincoln and the Jews: A History (Thomas Dunne Books) and an exhibit that ran last spring at the New York Historical Society.

The documents they discovered, Sarna said, give “a real sense of Lincoln the human being, who writes to all sorts of people” and show that “the private Lincoln is as impressive as the public Lincoln.”

Lincoln had 120 Jews in his circle, among them five friends and 48 acquaintances. The friends include Abraham Jonas, an Illinois lawyer and one of the first to suggest Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency. In an 1860 letter, Lincoln told Jonas, “You are one of my most valued friends.”

Others in his circle included his podiatrist, Issachar Zacharie, who traveled South to gather information on Lincoln’s behalf, and Lincoln’s personal physician, “a Jew named Lieberman,” Sarna said.

As America’s Jewish population grew — from 3,000 in 1809, the year Lincoln was born, to 150,000 when he was assassinated in 1865 — Lincoln encountered “more and more Jews,” Sarna said, adding that the archival materials indicate that Lincoln was “distinctive” for his time in judging people “as people, not by religion or race.”

Lincoln was quick to rescind Grant’s General Orders Number 11 (the subject of Sarna’s book When General Grant Expelled the Jews), which barred Jews, who were suspected of smuggling cotton, from areas under Grant’s control. In 1862, the president also appointed the first Jewish military chaplain for the 7,000 Jews in the Union Army.

Sarna said he would like to see American-Jewish day schools include the “Lincoln and the Jews” material in their U.S. history courses in order to “imbue students with the sense that Jews are part of history.”

“I think when you see Jews as part of the polity today, recognized as equal, we are enjoying the fruits of seeds planted in Lincoln’s day,” he said.

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