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Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial Is Celebrated and His Relationship with Jews Is Examined

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2009

In anticipation of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in February, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) launched a seven-section exhibit detailing Jewish life in Civil War-era Washington.  
Wendy Turman, a JHSGW archivist, points out that one Jewish Washingtonian, Isachar Zacharie, formed “a very unusual relationship” with Lincoln. Zacharie was a podiatrist and “He would come and work on the president’s corns and feet. There also seemed to be some indication that Lincoln used him to bounce ideas off of about what was going on in the Jewish community.”  
The exhibit, “Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City,” tells the story of Jewish soldiers, various community members as well as recounting an act of espionage committed by Jewish belle Eugenia Phillips, a Southerner who spied for the Confederacy. Though Phillips’ husband was a Democratic member of Congress from Alabama, who had pledged his allegiance to the Union, Eugenia chose the Confederacy.  
One section of the exhibit, “Life Across the River,” focuses on the community in Alexandria, Virginia, which was Union-occupied, and brimming with Jews. “There was a much richer—and broader Jewish community than many people think about when they’re thinking about this period,” Turman said, pointing out that in 1859, in the lead up to the war, 15 families founded Beth El Hebrew Congregation.  
Laura Cohen Apelbaum, JHSGW’s director, notes that, “All the stores on lower King Street were owned by Jewish merchants—so there’s a little notice in the Alexandria Gazette that reported on the activities of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in 1863. There’s a quote that reads, ‘The most sacred of the Hebrew feasts began yesterday evening; the stores of all the Jews in the city have been closed since yesterday evening.”  
The exhibit features a display about Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 1862 decree against Jews. Claiming that “Jews as a class” had violated “every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department,” he effectively expelled all Jews from the Tennessee Division, an area that included parts of Illinois, Kentucky and Mississippi.  
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 greatest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” Shortly thereafter Kaskel arrived in the White House. He showed Lincoln Order No. 11. On January 6, Grant revoked it.  
The following exchange is said to have taken place. Abraham Lincoln: “And so the children of Israel were driven out of 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.”  
A discussion of Lincoln in The Jerusalem Post (International Edition, Feb. 20-26, 2009) reports: “Lincoln’s oldest and closest colleague was Abraham Jonas (1801-1869). In1860, Lincoln wrote to him, ‘You are one of my most valued friends.’ A native of England, Jonas joined his brother 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 was one of the first to suggest Lincoln for the presidency.”  
The Post declared that, “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 withersoever thou goest’ (Deuteronomy 31:6.”  
Washington Jewish Week (Feb. 12, 2009), reports that a handwritten document by President Lincoln that is considered a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation has resided for the past 57 years in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, “But the three-page document took what might be called a Jewish route to the display case in the church’s Lincoln Parlor.”  
One July 14, 1862, Lincoln submitted to both houses of Congress the draft of a bill to compensate states that would outlaw slavery. Congress did not vote on the bill, but this document set in motion a process that culminated in his issuing on Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation.  
According to Washington Jewish Week, “Fast forward nearly nine decades to Barney Balaban, the president of Paramount Pictures. ... Balaban loved American history, buying and donating artifacts. ‘He was very patriotic,’ his grandnephew, David, said. ‘He was very involved in spreading American ideals.’ ... Balaban bought the Lincoln document and planned to donate it to Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld of the Washington Hebrew Congregation ... Joy Davenport, a congregant of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church since 1954, recalled that Pastor George Docherty and Gerstenfeld were golfing partners. Docherty told the group that on one such golf outing, Gerstenfeld mentioned Balaban’s intention to donate the Lincoln document to the synagogue. And George Docherty had the chutzpah to say something like, ‘Oh, I think it belongs in the Lincoln church,’ Davenport said. ... While not formal members of the church, the Lincolns regularly attended services there. Lincoln and his wife were good friends of Docherty’s predecessor, Phineas Gurley ... Gerstenfeld not only donated the Lincoln manuscript, but had the honor of formally unveiling it at the dedication in the church’s new building, on Dec. 20, 1952. Balaban attended the ceremony too.” (Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld was an early member of the American Council for Judaism.)  
In an article “‘Father Abraham’—Our Protector, Friend,” Larry Greenfield, vice president and fellow in American studies at the Claremont Institute (Washington Jewish Week, Feb. 12, 2009), speculates about Lincoln’s possible Jewish origins: “Lincoln’s own possible Jewish roots are debated. His ancestry went back to a town in eastern England named Lincoln, where mostly Jews were known to reside. Named Abraham (his great-grandfather was Mordechai), Lincoln was the only American president not to have declared himself a member of any particular religious faith, and he was neither raised in nor belonged to a church.”

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