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Birth of freedom

Franklin Lakes rabbi chants Gettysburg Address in Hebrew

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A contemporary postcard imagines the scene at Gettysburg.

Abraham Lincoln has always felt somehow Jewish, both in form and in function.

First, form.

Lincoln was Father Abraham, the visionary leader who followed the voice of truth – surely similar to the voice of God – where it took him. He was no wild-eyed fanatic, though, no John Brown, drunk on destruction. He was instead a tall, brooding, brilliant, melancholic, complex man, given to homespun wit and black depression, with a complicated home life, and he led his people from possible destruction to possible redemption.

In function, he was perhaps more like Moshe. He freed the slaves. Yes, it was complicated, messy, and incomplete, but it also was revolutionary. Like Moshe, he saw injustice and could not tolerate it; like Moshe, too, he is venerated. Like Moshe, he was a great orator, and his speeches hold echoes of biblical tropes.

We celebrate his birthday, along with that of another great president, George Washington, on Presidents’ Day, which falls this year on February 17.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes is a student of American history, and a great believer in the importance of emphasizing the connections between our history as Jews and as Americans.

He thinks that the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln’s concise, lyric elegy to the dead soldiers hastily buried in a field in Pennsylvania, “touches on themes of national meaning and eternal values that are in their own right prophetic.”

He also thinks that it sounds good in Hebrew.

Rabbi Prouser has translated the 272-English-word speech into Hebrew, assigned the musical notes of haftarah trope to it, and plans to chant it after the Torah is read at the morning minyan at his shul on Presidents’ Day. (On Shabbat and holidays, chanted sections of the Prophets – the haftarah – follow the Torah reading. The music of the chant, signaled by notations in the text, is called trope.)

Although there is always necessarily some interpretation in translation, there is perhaps a bit more in assigning trope, Rabbi Prouser said. The musical notes “traditionally are used to bring out the emphasis within the text. There are certainly melodies that go with climaxes and suspense. They themselves form a kind of commentary on the biblical text.

“So the trope I use for the text is a commentary on the text. I hope that it will bring out the intent of Lincoln’s words, and bring them closer to the listener.”

The service will be unchanged in every other way; the Torah reading will proceed as on any other Monday morning. He will chant the address at the point in the service where the haftarah is read on Shabbat and holidays; the Torah will have been dressed but not yet returned to the ark. He will not chant blessings before and after, as he would were it a haftarah he was reading, but otherwise the service will be unchanged.

“Part of Lincoln’s message is that the American vision of freedom and national purpose is constantly unfolding,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We are always discovering it, and building toward a more perfect expression of the American dream.

“The Jewish people certainly have been beneficiaries of the dream. Our purpose ultimately is to celebrate the message that Lincoln tried to communicate in his own time, and to offer an expression of gratitude for all that it’s meant to the Jewish community.”

The shul has invited local officials to the service. The invitations have been extended by its co-chairs – Robert Yudin, who also chairs the Bergen County Republican Organization, and Linda Schwager, a Democrat and the mayor of Oakland.

“People forget that Lincoln was a Republican,” Mr. Yudin said. “We Republicans are proud of our heritage, proud that Lincoln was the first Republican president, and proud that we are the party that freed the slaves.”

That is his feeling as a Republican. As a Jew, “We trace our heritage back to when we sought freedom from Pharaoh. It is a universal hope for people to be free, to be in charge of their own destiny,” he said.

Ms. Schwager, a lawyer, is a longtime shul member; in fact, she and her family belonged to the Oakland Jewish Community Center before it merged with Emanuel in the late 1980s. A strong proponent of bipartisanship, she lives it every day, as the Democratic mayor of a Republican stronghold in a Republican part of Bergen County. “I wish there were no parties,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we could all be nonpartisan, but that’s not the real world.”

Ms. Schwager is thrilled about the Gettysburg haftarah, and the other local officials it will attract, including Mayor Richard Goldberg of Hawthorne and Mayor Frank Bivona of the shul’s hometown, Franklin Lakes. (It will be undermined in a way, though, by its own premise, she pointed out. It’s happening to mark Presidents’ Day – but Presidents’ Day is the start of a week of school vacation, so many people, including local leaders who otherwise would have joined them, will be out of town.)

“I am so excited to be part of it!” she said. “I normally would not get up so early to get to the minyan – but I’ll be there.”

The Gettysburg Address
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey

What: Will read the Gettysburg Address in Hebrew, set to haftarah trope

When: At the morning minyan on Presidents’ Day, Monday, February 17, from 8 to 9:15

Where: Temple Emanuel, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

Why: To make explicit the connections between Jewish and American history, and to honor the memory of the Great Emancipator.

For information: Call the shul at (201) 560-0200.

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