In 2009, when I published “All Other Nights,” a novel about Jewish spies in the Civil War, I was invited to speak at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg, Pa. I arrived to discover 19th-century military tents in the social hall, populated by Civil War re-enactors in period dress. But as I enjoyed the reception’s matzo ball gumbo, what I found most unsettling was the real living history in the room: the synagogue’s elderly congregants.
Founded in 1853, Ohev Sholom is 40 miles from Gettysburg and had lost congregants in the battle. And some of today’s elderly congregants remembered that battle’s veterans — the old people in their synagogue back when they were children.
Those veterans never spoke of their experiences, the congregants told me, except by reciting Kaddish. Instead they struggled with a new world that separated them from their past.
“Battlefield trauma? They never heard of it,” said one old man, when I asked. “You know what they wouldn’t shut up about? The transition from horse to car.”
Unlike those elders who had a personal connection to the Civil War, when I first began my research for “All Other Nights,” I felt as though I had landed on an alien planet. The planters defending slavery, the abolitionists with their Christian rhetoric, the slaves whose voices were garbled by white people’s renderings of their speech, the ladies running their “Sanitary Fairs,” and of course the soldiers who often spoke of everything but the emotional void of seeing their friends burned alive — they all seemed foreign to me, as though I were studying some exotic indigenous tribe.
The only thing that felt eerily familiar was what I began to see as my own indigenous tribe: the American Jewish community during the Civil War.
When the Southern states seceded in 1861, most American churches split in half — which is why to this day there are Southern Baptists and Southern Methodists. There were national Jewish organizations in 1861, including B’nai B’rith and several others, but none of them split during the Civil War. One could attribute this to the community’s small size (there were about 130,000 American Jews in 1861), but I think there is also a far more profound reason.
Today most Americans have friends and family in different parts of the country. But in 1861, when most Americans were small farmers, this was relatively rare — except among American Jews, who were usually running businesses rather than farms and therefore often led more mobile lives. When the war divided the country, they could identify with people on the other side, because they frequently knew people on the other side. This was a community where Northern Jews would bring matzo on Passover to Southern Jewish POWs in Northern prison camps, while Southern Jewish families hosted Northern Jewish invading soldiers for holiday meals.