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Although Jews are far from alone in idolizing Lincoln, he has been, as Beth Wenger (director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania and historian of American Jewry) has demonstrated, a versatile symbol for synagogues, socialists and Zionists since 1865.
American Jews have imagined and reimagined Lincoln in a variety of ways to demonstrate their patriotism, belonging and alignment with American values. Others have focused their attention on the handful of Jews who entered Lincoln’s orbit, basking in the reflected rays of his greatness. Why else, for example, do we know (and care) that it was Edward Rosewater, a Jew, who transmitted the Emancipation Proclamation by telegraph from the office of the War Department? By associating themselves with the revered figure of “Father Abraham,” Jews (and others) have burnished their own image and self-perception.
Indeed Wise’s memorial sermon itself suggests how fickle and malleable memory and commemoration can be. After all, his eulogy represented a striking volte-face. In 1860, Wise had opposed Lincoln’s candidacy for president, describing him as a “country squire who would look queer in the White House with his country manner.” As recently as a year and a half before the assassination, the rabbi had publicly identified with the “Copperhead” faction of the Democratic Party, known for the ferocity of its attacks on Lincoln’s administration.
Although his politics were more radical than those of many of his co-religionists, his preference for the Democratic Party (rather than Lincoln’s Republicans) was not atypical of American Jews, particularly in the election of 1860. During Lincoln’s lifetime, Jews, and many others in the Union, were ambivalent about their wartime president; following his death, they joined their countrymen in pronouncing Father Abraham a sainted martyr, and at times claimed him as one of their own.
Adam Mendelsohn is the co-editor, with Jonathan D. Sarna, of “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” (NYU Press, 2010).