Abraham Lincoln the Jew

After Assassination, Shuls Chanted Prayers for Slain Leader

getty images

By Adam Mendelsohn

Published November 27, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

“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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.