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.
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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.

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.


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