“He,” a somber Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise intoned after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “is a sin-offering for our iniquities.” This sentiment, expressed in a black-draped congregation in Cincinnati, was echoed in countless other memorial services across the North. Peace had been declared but days before; now, synagogues recited the Kaddish for the fallen president.
In New York City, Shearith Israel broke with custom by chanting a Sephardic mourning prayer it had never before said for a gentile. Jews were in the midst of celebrating Passover; now Lincoln, like Moses, had succumbed at the threshold of the Promised Land. In Cincinnati, Wise ended his sermon with words that may have stunned his hushed audience (we have no record of the response). “Abraham Lincoln,” he proclaimed, “believed [himself] to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed [himself] to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage. He said so in my presence. And, indeed, he preserved numerous features of the Hebrew race, both in countenance and character.”
Those who seek to cultivate this claim will find it to be rooted in thin soil. Efforts to construct a Hebraic lineage that connects Lincoln’s lonely log cabin in Kentucky with Mount Sinai must rely more on wishful thinking than on fact. Likewise, there are more parochial explanations for Lincoln’s rhetoric, lush with biblical imagery, than a Jewish upbringing. Lincoln’s friendship with Jews reveals relatively little beyond an absence of prejudice.
His most intimate Jewish acquaintance seems to have been Isachar Zacharie, his self-promoting chiropodist, whom he entrusted with a secret diplomatic mission during the war (in subsequent retellings, Zacharie has become the most, perhaps the only, celebrated foot doctor in Jewish history). And Lincoln’s responsiveness to Jewish concerns during the Civil War — his support for efforts to amend a congressional statute that barred non-Christians from the military chaplaincy, and his rapid countermanding of an anti-Semitic order issued by his most successful general — bespeak his genius as a president rather than tribal solidarity.
Instead, Wise’s words — almost certainly one of his occasional flights of fancy — are more intriguing for what they reveal about how Jews have thought about Lincoln since his death than for what they can tell us about Lincoln himself. Wise’s efforts to claim the departed president as a Jew were an early example of an incipient “cult of Lincoln” that has been embellished over time.