Passover and Appomatox

by | Apr 3, 2015 | Torah Thought

This year, Passover coincides with the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the fighting in the American Civil War. The sesquicentennial ought to prompt us to reflect on our dual identity as American Jews, on the high cost of freedom, on the lessons to be learned from Judaism and the Jewish experience for today’s troubled world.

The American Civil War was the moment in Jewish history when a particular nightmare from the European Jewish experience was exported to these shores. In 1806, testing the loyalty of French Jews to France, Napoleon demanded that they affirm that they would take up arms for France, even if it meant that they would be killing Jewish soldiers fighting for France’s enemies. The leaders of French Jewry made that promise… one hopes that in their hearts, they prayed that it would not come to pass. But it did come to pass in The United States, as Jews enlisted on both sides of the conflict.

When I took my Temple Israel travel group to Gettysburg, on July 4, 2013, for the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the battle of Gettysburg, our battlefield tour guide, Debra Novotny, gave us some wonderful vignettes of American Jewish history. We stopped at a monument to the 82nd Illinois regiment, conspicuous in its gallantry in the fighting north of the city on July 1. One company of that regiment was entirely composed of members of a single Chicago synagogue, who had enlisted en masse.

Fascinated, I researched this topic further. The regimental colonel, Edward Salomon, continued to win positive evaluations throughout the war, ultimately achieving the rank of Brigadier General and earning the approbation of Ulysses S. Grant. As president, and as part of his sincere efforts to atone for his lapse of 1862, when he had expelled the Jews from the military department of the Tennessee (the official name of the district where General Grant was in charge of Union Army actions), Grant appointed Salomon the governor of Washington Territory—the first American Jew to reach so high a governmental office.

Jews were also prominent in the Confederate army at Gettysburg. At Temple Israel’s “Second Shabbat” special service, this coming Saturday, April 11, I will tell a story that I learned from Ms. Novotny about Major Alexander Hart, of the 5th Louisiana, who is buried at the entrance to the Jewish section of Forest Lawn cemetery.

These details highlight a broader trend: their service in the forces of both sides, but especially the Union armies, brought Jews into much closer association with their fellow Americans and accelerated the Americanization of our immigrant ancestors. Similar processes would later happen in World War I and especially in World War II , when 550,000 Jews were in uniform. Our service and sacrifices helped us to become full Americans, psychologically. Those experiences bequeathed to us the sense of being at home in our country—a feeling that few Jews have ever had throughout our long and lachrymose history.

The Civil War proved the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s dictum that a state, half slave and half free, could not endure. The novel status of being Jewish in a free society has raised the question of assimilation, of cultural/social Jewish survival. That is the main question facing Jews in America today. It is a serious question, but at least it is not the question of physical survival that dogs Israelis, contemplating a nuclear-armed and apocalyptically crazed Iran, or the question agitating our fellow Western Jews, of when to leave an evermore anti-Semitic Europe. The Civil War was the start of the process of giving us the luxury to experiment with answers of how to sustain Jewishness, absent the pressure of persecution.

When you read this, you will still be pleasantly full from your Passover seder (or sedarim). You will have just experienced the Feast of Freedom. It is one of the key rituals for keeping Judaism vibrant in the Land of the Free.

Here, too, a Civil War vignette can help us to remember the “mystic chords of memory” (Lincoln, again!) that unite the Jewish people: A Jewish Union soldier was walking through Richmond during Passover, 1865, just after Grant’s forces had captured the Confederate capital. He saw a Jewish boy sitting on a stoop, munching on a board of matzah. The soldier asked the boy for a bite. The boy ran inside, calling loudly to his mother: “Mama, there’s a damn-yankee-Jew outside!” The mother appeared, apologized for her son’s rude language, and invited the soldier to dine with the family the next day. They kept their appointment, and their shared Jewishness overcame the politics that had earlier set them so much at odds—a happy ending!

Wishing you a happy conclusion of Passover!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel