Dr. Gary P. Zola’s “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Over the course of American history, Jews have held many American leaders in high esteem, but they maintain a unique emotional bond with Abraham Lincoln. From the time of his presidency to the present day, American Jews have persistently viewed Lincoln as one of their own, casting him as a Jewish sojourner and, in certain respects, a Jewish role model.

Dr. Gary P. Zola’s “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History,” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), the first volume of annotated documents to focus on the history of Lincoln’s image, influence, and reputation among American Jews, considers how Lincoln acquired his exceptional status and how, over the past century and a half, this fascinating relationship has evolved.

“Everybody venerates Lincoln,” stated Dr. Zola, Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA) and Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.. “He is beatified and becomes an icon all over the world. But I challenge anyone to identify an American hero, not a Jewish hero, who has been taken into the Jewish experience as if he were really one of us. There’s a difference between admiring an American hero and considering that American hero to be a Jewish role model.” 

Organized into twelve chronological and thematic chapters, these little-known primary source documents—many never before published and some translated into English for the first time—consist of newspaper clippings, journal articles, letters, poems, and sermons, and provide insight into a wide variety of issues relating to Lincoln’s Jewish connection. Topics include Lincoln’s early encounters with Central European Jewish immigrants living in the Old Northwest; Lincoln’s Jewish political allies; his encounters with Jews and the Jewish community as President; Lincoln’s response to the Jewish chaplain controversy; General U. S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11 expelling “Jews, as a class” from the Military Department of Tennessee; the question of amending the U.S. Constitution to legislate the country’s so-called Christian national character; and Jewish eulogies after Lincoln’s assassination. Other chapters consider the crisis of conscience that arose when President Andrew Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning for Lincoln on the festival of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), a day when Jewish law enjoins Jews to rejoice and not to mourn; Lincoln’s Jewish detractors contrasted to his boosters; how American Jews have intentionally “Judaized” Lincoln ever since his death; the leading role that American Jews have played in in crafting Lincoln’s image and in preserving his memory for the American nation; American Jewish reflections on the question “What Would Lincoln Do?”; and how Lincoln, for America’s Jewish citizenry, became the avatar of America’s highest moral aspirations. 

With thoughtful chapter introductions that provide readers with a context for the annotated documents that follow, this volume provides a fascinating chronicle of American Jewry’s unfolding historical encounter with the life and symbolic image of Abraham Lincoln, shedding light on how the cultural interchange between American ideals and Jewish traditions influences the dynamics of the American Jewish experience.

Carol Poll, Ph.D., writes, "Dr. Zola provides the complicated history behind General Order No. 11 and numerous other examples of Lincoln's involvement with individual Jews and the Jewish community. He describes Lincoln's friendship and working relationship with Dr. Isacher Zacherie, a favorite Washington chiropodist. Zacherie was enlisted by Lincoln and sent to New Orleans to collect information about Southern military actions and engage in secret diplomatic engagements with Southern officers to seek an end to the war.  This book is fascinating. It paints an intriguing picture of President Lincoln and Jewish life in the mid-nineteenth century. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, as will anyone interested in American and Jewish history." 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu