Holding Hands Across Time From Sinai to Gettysburg and Today

Jewish Culture Brings an Uncanny Intimacy to the Past

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

By Dara Horn

Published June 30, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


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!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • 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.