Why Jews revere Abraham Lincoln

Why Jews revere Abraham Lincoln

One of the last photographs of Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1865, five days before his assassination.

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, holds a special place in the hearts of many Jews. It was he who canceled General Grant’s infamous order, Number 11, expelling Jewish traders from several states. And it was Lincoln who first enabled rabbis to serve as chaplains in the Union army.

Beyond that, Lincoln himself – whose birthday Americans celebrate on Saturday, Feb. 12 – is perceived as a true humanitarian, helping to free the United States of the scourge of slavery, just as the Jews in ancient Israel had been freed from slavery by Moses.

According to The Jewish Virtual Library, “American Jews have felt especially attracted to Lincoln as the emancipator of the black slave, as a victim of violence, as a dreamer of peace, and as the spokesman of a way of life ‘with malice towards none, with charity for all,’ which matches the idealism of the prophets.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah there, and rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division, acknowledges that he is “obsessed” with Lincoln. He observes that Lincoln was subject to melancholia, and that strikes a chord with Jews. Melancholia, Genack believes, is a Jewish trait – so-called Jewish music tends to be in a minor key – and Jews are impressed that Lincoln, despite his tendency toward depression, managed to achieve great things.

One way some Jewish Americans express their high regard for our 16th president is by collecting memorabilia about him – his writings, his autographs, letters he wrote, portraits painted of him, and the like.

Rabbi Menachem Genack owns a portrait of Lincoln done by Freeman Woodcock Thorp, who saw Lincoln up close. Lincoln’s son called it the best likeness he had ever seen. The rabbi also owns a letter from a soldier dismissed for disobedience; Lincoln wrote in the letter’s upper right corner that he wanted the secretary of war to give him details about the case.

Genack is among such collectors. While his collection is modest – there’s no Gettysburg Address, no Second Inaugural Address – it’s impressive. Especially impressive is his recent acquisition of one of four existing portraits of Lincoln by Freeman Woodcock Thorp (1844-1922), who had seen Lincoln up close on several occasions. (Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, said the portrait was “more like father than any other likeness I have ever seen.”)

A recent visitor, after gazing at an authentic Lincoln signature that the rabbi owns, said she felt goosebumps.

Genack also owns non-Lincoln memorabilia, including the handwriting of George Washington on a commercial document. And he possesses many letters from a friend of his, Bill Clinton, usually on the subject of the Bible.

In one letter Genack owns, a soldier dismissed for disobedience asks Lincoln for help, and in a corner of the letter Lincoln writes a note asking for a full report on the case.

Genack also has a photograph of various Civil War personalities, including George Meade, the general who defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee at the battle of Gettysburg. (Lincoln, the rabbi notes, wrote a letter castigating Meade for not pursuing Lee’s soldiers – but never mailed it.)

How does he find items for sale? He’s on mailing lists of notices about auctions.

Why Lincoln especially?

“He had an extraordinary character – wedded to political genius,” responds Genack. “He was true to his vision, and was careful to implement it.” Lincoln was determined, first and foremost, to preserve the union, which is why he didn’t attempt to abolish slavery in the border states. “But he always abhorred slavery, feeling that it was morally wrong.”

Among other virtues, he didn’t hold a grudge, Genack points out. Although William Stanton had once humiliated him by declining to sit with him at a public ceremony, as president Lincoln named him secretary of war – and later they became good friends.

The rabbi adds that Lincoln had a neat sense of humor. Someone called Lincoln two-faced; his response, acknowledging his homeliness, was: “If I had another face, would I be wearing this one?”

Genack not only collects Lincoln keepsakes; he is a Lincoln scholar. He knows that Lincoln is the only president who owns a patent (on May 22, 1849, Lincoln received Patent No. 6469 for a device to lift boats over shoals – but it was never manufactured).

He knows that Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, conveyed some smutty jokes Lincoln supposedly told. And that Lincoln was planning to visit Europe when he was assassinated (he never left the United States).

Carl Epstein of Teaneck has what he calls a shrine for Lincoln in his basement. It features a Lincoln bust as well as items of the period, like a top hat, bonnet, and candlesticks. Behind Epstein: a variety of Lincoln portraits and an old flag. Jerry Szubin

And he knows that Lincoln could be tough. When Southern officers announced that they would summarily execute any black soldier they captured fighting for the North, Lincoln announced that if the South carried out its threat, the North would summarily execute any Southern officer it captured. That ended that.

The rabbi talks softly and thoughtfully, and he has strong opinions on a variety of subjects. For example, he is convinced that Lincoln was religious.

Lincoln was possibly both our least and our most religious president, he has written. He did not attend any church, and as a young man was probably an agnostic. Still, Genack argues, “he was still a man who in his own way communed with God.”

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Genack believes, with its line “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” – is “a profoundly religious document.” In fact, he calls it “the greatest speech in U.S. history.”

Just why was Lincoln so sympathetic toward Jews? Genack points out that he was friends with Jews throughout his life – and “he just had an enormous sense of empathy.” Example: His manservant, William Johnson, was so faithful to Lincoln, nursing him back to health when he was ill, that when Johnson died, of smallpox, Lincoln saw to it that he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery – with the headstone, William Johnson, Citizen.

Genack defends Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, against her detractors (some of whom accused her of being sympathetic to the South). Actually, he says, she gave strong support for her husband; she even visited soldiers in hospitals.

If the South had been permitted to secede, wouldn’t slavery have eventually been ended? “It would have taken a long time,” he answers. “Maybe 50 years. Who knows?” And if the United States had been two countries, and not a powerful single country, he points out, we might not have been able to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II.

Did Lincoln make any mistakes? Yes, Genack replies. He didn’t fire Gen. George McClellan soon enough – McClellan vacillated when he should have attacked – and substitute U.S. Grant.

One more thing the rabbi says about Lincoln: “There should be more teaching about him in our schools. He represents the best in American civilization.”

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