On his second to last day as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, Jonathan Karp is patrolling the galleries of the Center for Jewish History. “Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” is on exhibit here until August 11, at which point the majority of it will move to the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The exhibit is a collaboration between AJHS and the Yeshiva University Museum, but Karp was the driving force behind it. Soon he will be returning to SUNY Binghamton, where he is a professor of history; in the fall he will teach a course on the history of Jews and crime, from the Middle Ages to Bernard Madoff, and this may become the subject of a book. Another book is also in the works for Karp, this one about the relationship between blacks and Jews in the music industry. As Karp took one last stroll through these galleries, he talked with the Forward’s arts and culture editor, Adam Langer, about how the exhibit helped to undermine some of his own preconceptions about Jews in American history.
Adam Langer: Had a great deal of attention been paid to the roles of Jews during the Civil War before this exhibit?
Jonathan Karp: There was an exhibition on this in 1961 by Bertram Korn, who was the leading historian on Jews and the Civil War. There has been a lot of scholarship on Southern Jews and the relationship between blacks and Jews, but on the Civil War per se, relatively little. Despite this neglect, the Civil War is kind of a crucible of American Jewish history. The Jewish population in 1840 was about 15,000, and in 1860 it was about 150,000, and there were probably about 10 or 11,000 Jews who fought in the Civil War — maybe about 7,000 on the northern side, 3,000 on the southern side. The war rapidly accelerated Americanization on both sides, and more than 50 Jews were commanders of regiments. The story we’re telling here is about rapid Americanization. In some way it’s a Jewish story, but it’s an American story in that it illustrates how America provided a framework for Jews to exercise their talents relatively unhindered by their Jewish identities.
But did the Americanization hold? Did Jews’ assimilation into the Civil War effort remain relevant once the war was over?
It does seem that it did remain relevant. Contacts were made during the war; there was the absorption of American English, of American manners and mores. And the war also created the groundwork for the creation of a kind of business elite. Part of that had to do with Jews’ involvement in clothing manufacture. Because of the needs of both militaries to supply uniforms, an unusually high number of Jews were able to plug into that, creating the groundwork for the establishment of the German Jewish elite. In that sense, the Civil War was a crucial step to the establishment of a kind of Jewish economic beachhead that had enormous consequences for generations to come.
Was there any friction between Jews who had served and those who hadn’t?
The underlying question in a lot of investigations of Jews in the military is often a defensiveness about accusations of Jews shirking military service. That was a stereotype that went back to the 18th century. Were Jews physically capable of serving? Were they religiously capable of it? There were accusations that Jewish troops, on the first appearance of a false messiah, would march off to Palestine instead of completing the battle. Or they would stop fighting on the Sabbath. There were serious debates about whether Jews were too poor, weak and malnourished and unable to fight.