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!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • 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.