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I remember the strange familiarity I felt when I first learned of Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer who lived in northern Kentucky and then southern Illinois, served in the legislatures of both states, and became instrumental in securing the Republican nomination for his dear friend Abraham Lincoln. Jonas had 10 children; his Kentucky-born sons served in the Confederate army, while his Illinois-born son wore Union blue. That’s a common enough American story, except for one detail.
Lincoln arrived at his 1861 inauguration under heavy guard, an unusual precaution at the time. He had been tipped off by Jonas about a plot to assassinate him en route. Jonas’s sources were his own sons in New Orleans, several of whom were such loyal Rebels that they later became Confederate officers. But when they heard rumors in New Orleans of a plot against Lincoln, they felt they had to warn their father’s friend.
One could call this “dual loyalty,” the pejorative leveled at Jews so often to this day. And it is a dual loyalty, but not the sort one might assume. It’s a loyalty to both space and time, an obligation to one’s neighbors and one’s fathers. In America, the founding mythology suggests that each of us is a self-made person without a past. But in Judaism, the founding mythology teaches that thousands of years ago, you yourself were standing at Sinai — that in effect, you are your past. Jonas’s sons, fiercely loyal to the place of their birth, still felt that tug of time.
The battle at Gettysburg was 150 years ago, but that’s a blink of an eye in the millennia since Sinai. That uncanny intimacy with the past is what Jewish culture brings to American history: the sense, through those who touch us in childhood and old age, and through those who touched them in a chain across time, that we all walk this scorched earth for far longer than those who witnessed the battle could ever imagine.
Years ago, I spent a summer working at American Heritage magazine, which ran a column called “My Brush with History.” I will always remember one piece the magazine published that year, written by an elderly reader who recalled his boyhood in 1920s Brooklyn.
One day on the stoop next door to his, he saw a group of old men chatting together, veterans of the Civil War. One of them called our reader over, saying, “Sonny, shake my hand.” When the boy shook his hand, the old man said, “Now you’re two handshakes away from the American Revolution — because when I was your age, I shook hands with a veteran of the Revolutionary War.”
The reader concluded with the thought, “What a young country we live in!” But I was haunted, as I was in the shadow of the reenactors’ tent and still am now, by a different thought: How old we all are, eternally old, forever holding hands with the past.
Dara Horn’s new novel A Guide for the Perplexed, about digital memory and the Cairo genizah, will be published this September.