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Why Is This Civil War Different From All Other Civil Wars?

All Other Nights
By Dara Horn
W.W. Norton & Co., 384 pages, $24.95.

More than most other novelists of her generation, Dara Horn draws inspiration from neglected nooks of Jewish history. She set part of her first novel, “In the Image,” published in 2002, in Amsterdam before the German invasion. Horn, however, has been reluctant to add to the bulging body of Holocaust literature, which, she has claimed, “ultimately teaches that what is worth knowing about Jewish life is only that it ended.”

Four years later, by following several generations from Russia to Uzbekistan, then to Vietnam and then to New Jersey, Horn’s dexterous second novel, “The World To Come,” illustrated the continuity of Jewish life. A scholar of comparative literature, Horn has been trained to make connections. A specialist in Yiddish and Hebrew, she has learned to be skeptical of endings.

Horn sets her riveting new novel, “All Other Nights,” during the American Civil War, when the Jewish population in both the North and the South totaled a mere 130,000. Some Jews were abolitionists, others slave owners, but all of them — even Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of state of the Confederacy — were suspicious aliens in the eyes of Christian compatriots.

Wondering aloud what the war was being fought for, a loutish cabdriver in Philadelphia replies: “For niggers, abolitionists, Republicans, and Jews, that’s for what…. The niggers and the abolitionists got what they wanted, and now it’s the Republicans and the Jews running the show. It always was, behind it all.” Resentment of Jewish scheming led Ulysses Grant, commanding general of the Union Army, to expel Jews from his military jurisdiction — an action that, though soon revoked by President Abraham Lincoln, affects events in Horn’s novel.

Disdain for Jews leads other officers to dispatch Jacob Rappaport, a 19-year-old schlimazel in the Union Army, on an unsavory mission. When we meet him, in the opening sentence of “All Other Nights,” he is crammed inside a barrel that is stored on a boat on its way to New Orleans. The year is 1862, and Jacob has been ordered to poison his Southern uncle, a merchant believed to be plotting to assassinate Lincoln. “You would be another Hebrew spy, like in Scripture,” an officer assures hapless Jacob. To justify his role as redeemer of Jewish perfidy, he is told: “Judah Benjamin and his kin have done your race a great disservice…. Every Hebrew in the Union will reward you if you undo what he has done.” Benjamin was more than just a leader of the Confederacy and a confidant of Jefferson Davis; he was also a lightning rod for antisemitism, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon.

During Jacob’s covert misadventures in New York, Louisiana, Washington D.C., Mississippi, Virginia and Pennsylvania he meets and even works for the legendary Benjamin, an immigrant from the Caribbean whom Horn portrays as consumed by unrequited love for his adopted nation. “You may be young, you may have been born in America, but you are still a Hebrew,” he tells Jacob. “You know what it means to lose.”

For Benjamin, who cast his fortune on the wrong side of the War Between the States, Jews constitute a cabal of losers who do not need a secret handshake to recognize one another. Indeed, it is because he, alone among the Union soldiers occupying Abigail Solomon’s Mississippi town, is familiar with the laws of kashrut that Jacob is able to answer that female Solomon’s Talmudic riddle, “What is the opposite of meat?” and thereby win her heart.

In Virginia, Philip Levy befriends Jacob. Levy states, “I am an American, a Jew, a businessman, and a father of daughters.” The interloper, Jacob, uses his Jewishness to ingratiate himself with those four gorgeous daughters, who supplement their father’s meager income by selling military intelligence to the Confederacy.

“All Other Nights,” which derives its title from the four questions of Passover, choreographs a Seder in New Orleans, a ritual meal commemorating release from bondage served by African slaves. (Another brilliant set piece is the burning of Richmond, performed not, as in Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta, by Northern invaders, but by fleeing rebels themselves). The traditional Paschal query “Why is this night different from all other nights?” echoes in the categorical imperative that Judah Benjamin voices to Jacob: “What you allow to happen one night will happen on all other nights as well.” Horn mines her wartime romance with disquieting questions about freedom, loyalty, identity and love. Her earlier comments on “In the Image” apply, as well, to this superb new novel: “I wanted to show how, even in the most dire of circumstances, as Jews and as people, we alone are responsible for the choices we make and for [the] kind of people we choose to be.”

Written in meticulous but energetic prose, “All Other Nights” joins “Landsman,” Peter Charles Melman’s 2007 novel (Counterpoint) about the harrowing coming of age of Elias Abrams, a 20-year-old recruit in the Confederate army, in the tiny library of distinguished fiction about Jewish experience during the Civil War. A pedant might quibble when told that Jacob thought fondly of the Levy household as a “magical time capsule,” since “time capsule” came into use only with the New York World’s Fair of 1939. But Horn has done her homework not only into period victuals and vestments, but also Benjamin’s abortive plan to emancipate slaves who took up arms for the Confederacy. Her novel is itself a precious time capsule offering access to yet another era in which it was not easy to be a Jew, or a responsible human being.

Released in time for Passover, when an African American presides over a Union still beset by tsuris, “All Other Nights” interrogates and celebrates nationhood and freedom. The Revolutionary War, like Abraham’s journey to Canaan, provided a people with its foundational myth. But it is the Civil War that, like the Exodus from Egypt, forged a common identity through opposition to oppression and reverence for the law. Conflating Jewish and American history, Horn’s third and most accomplished novel portrays Passover, the festival of freedom, amid the carnage caused by slavery. Horn’s lively, timely tale extends the range of American Jewish literature beyond familiar themes of immigration, assimilation and extermination.

Steven G. Kellman, author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), is professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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