Abraham Lincoln, everyone’s favorite president, was also a fan of the Jewish people, posits American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna in his latest book, “Lincoln and the Jews,” written with Benjamin Shapell, and now translated into Hebrew.
But the boldest step taken by the book, joked Thea Wieseltier, sister of writer and thinker Leon Wieseltier, who was at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim on Wednesday night for a conversation with Sarna and Ruth Calderon to discuss Lincoln, was the decision by Shapell, and supported by publishing house Kinneret Zmora, to remove the letter ‘lamed,’ which mimics the second ‘L’ in Lincoln, from the Hebrew spelling of the great president’s name. The silent letter is often pronounced by Hebrew speakers, incorrectly rendering the name, “Lincollin.”
Calderon, the Israeli academic and former Knesset member, reminisced that the curved Jerusalem street named after the famed US president, situated next to Washington Street, was once the only reference she had for him, and that because of its proximity to the city’s former soccer stadium, then located behind the YMCA.
Sarna had his own Jerusalem tale about Lincoln, taking place in the 1970s, when he and his father walked down the street, and, bumping into a man dressed in typically ultra-Orthodox garb, asked if he knew who the street’s eponymous Lincoln was, only to be told that he was a big UJA donor.
It was that kind of evening, full of quips and stories, as Sarna and Leon Wieseltier spoke about the book and Lincoln with questions asked by Calderon.
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, it’s an oversized hardcover, chock full of original documents and letters and a historical telling of Lincoln’s relationship with the Jews of early America, or as he called them, Hebrews or Israelites. Sarna is a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and was persuaded by Shapell, a collector of documents relating to Lincoln and the Jews, part of the independent Shapell Manuscript Foundation, to help organize the material for a wider audience.
As Sarna noted, when Lincoln was born, there were some 3,000 Jews in the United States. When he was assassinated, there were more than 100,000.
“It coincides with the emergence of Jews on the American scene,” said Sarna. “Lincoln had Jewish friends,” he added, referring to a chart in the book of 120 Jewish friends and supporters of Lincoln. “And that’s important, because when you know people, then you don’t distrust them.”
His actions, said Sarna, changed the Jews of his time from outsiders to insiders.
Lincoln used the term “countrymen” to refer to Jews, an equalizing name of the times, said Sarna, because “he had a sense of Jews as a people.”
Lincoln was a kind of American Moses, said Wieseltier. He was a friend of the slaves, with something almost “mystical about him, with his living relationship to God,” he said. “In 1855, he’s approaching our ideas of equality, and those standards of equality were already in our tradition.”
As president, Lincoln appointed Jews to his cabinet, an act of “affirmative action,” said Sarna.
“But it’s okay when it’s for us,” joked Wieseltier.
It was part of Lincoln’s overarching attitude of inclusion and equality, which was so unusual for those times, added Wieseltier.
“With malice toward none,” he quoted from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “That’s a radical idea.”
When asked by Calderon how all those ideas relate to today, Wieseltier replied that rights are axiomatic and that Jews are free to pursue their interests in the United States of the modern era. “We have never had it so good,” he said.
Sarna pointed to the two recent US presidential candidates, remarking on the fact that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have Jewish son-in-laws, and it was a “non- issue,” he said.
“It was a race between the mechutanim,” said Wieseltier, using the Yiddish term that refers to in-laws.
If Lincoln were alive today, said Wieseltier, he would be heartbroken about certain realities of American life, but ecstatic that his principles are still valid and constant. He told a story of his own early youth, as a student in the elementary school at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, where he had a role in the Hebrew language Thanksgiving play, a “reality that was crucial to (his) Jewish American identity.”
“He wrestled with deep, religious questions,” said Sarna of Lincoln, explaining the president’s ability to take such a broad look at his own society. And by dint of his great scholarship, as well as his understanding of the Bible, “he brought forth a period when Jews moved from the persecuted minority to an influential people.”
“Lincoln and the Jews: A History” (Thomas Dunne Books) is now available in English and Hebrew.