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The Schmooze

Abraham Lincoln: Champion of Jews as Americans

It was an elbow-to-elbow noshing crush at the March 19 preview reception of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition: “With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews” which was inspired by the publication of “Lincoln and Jews: A History” (Thomas Dunne Books) by Jonathan D. Sarna (dubbed by the Forward in 2004 as one of the 50 most influential Jews in America) and Benjamin Shapell, founder of The Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

Among the 350 movers, shakers and literati in the Jewish community: The Forward’s editor-in-Chief, Jane Eisner, its founding editor Seth Lipsky, Israel’s consul general Ido Aharoni, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Ken Bialkin, Mark Podwal, John Ruskay, and George Blumenthal — who will digitize the show.

Introduced by Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, Rabbi David Wolpe Sinai Temple, Los Angeles informed: “Having actually read the book…whenever you have a great man, everyone wants to claim him. And it is no surprise that in some ways, Jews want to claim Lincoln…There are three aspects of Lincoln that make him profoundly Jewish…The first is that Lincoln grew up alienated– which is very Jewish. Second: more than any other president, Lincoln is characterized by his use of words. In our tradition there is no perfect life — only the perfect words. When you come into a Jewish building you kiss a word…When Lincoln used words to sway a nation, we remember [the] words. Like the biblical Abraham he was blessed with eloquence and a passionate and articulate people who celebrate and share his legacy.”

Leon Wieseltier , Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of “Kaddish,” told the assemblage: “The most penetrating and beautiful pages I ever read about Abraham Lincoln were written in 1909 by Herbert Crawley who five years later founded the magazine ’The New Republic’ –which recently died. Crawley wrote that Lincoln was the most humane statesman who ever guided a nation through great crisis. He actually treated everybody–Southern Rebel, Negro Slave, Northern deserter —  with a just and kindly spirit…. When an old Negro approached Lincoln and blessed him with the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers — ‘May the Lord Bless and Keep you safe’ — the president of the U.S. bowed before the old man . Never before or since has so much power come with so much humility…and never before or since has humility been so eloquently recognized as an obligation of democracy. The love that American Jews came to feel for Lincoln was owed in part to their recognition of the universalism of Lincoln’s Americanism.”

Following an introduction by Frederick Lawrence, president of Brandeis University, Prof. Sarna joshed: “What a nice thing to hear from the man who pays your salary… I’m not sure anybody knew that Abraham Lincoln had over 120 friends, associates, supporters, acquaintances, appointees and so forth who turned out to be Jewish. Astonishing! During Lincoln’s time, the Jewish community ballooned from 3,000 to over 150,000 Jews! Unlike many Americans of his day, Lincoln embraced those immigrant newcomers for fully half of his life. He intervened on Jews’ behalf. He appointed a Jewish chaplain because he said ‘We have not yet appointed a Hebrew!’ It may be the first case of affirmative action in all of American Jewish history. Lincoln trusted Jews even when those around him displayed ugly prejudices against them. His willingness to embrace Jewish Americans paralleled his effort to abolish slavery and grant legal equality to Black Americans.”

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