Last Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Even now, a century and a half later, the story of his murder is chilling. President Lincoln, a charismatic, brilliant man, a gifted, poetic, emotionally charged writer, an inventive, skillful, and intuitive politician, a doting and grief-stricken father, was also a melancholic and fatalistic man who allowed himself only the most inadequate of safeguards.
John Wilkes Booth, a mad, bad man, came up behind Lincoln as he sat at the theater just as the end of the bloody, uncivil Civil War was being celebrated, and shot him through the head. It is impossible to hear the story without wanting to scream, to grab Booth’s arm, to throw something at him, somehow to stop him.
This season, two exhibits in Manhattan look at Mr. Lincoln. One, at the Morgan Library, at 225 Madison Avenue, offers “Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation.” Even more to the point – to our point – the New-York Historical Society, at 170 Central Park West, shows “Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation.” Both are on display until June 7.
The New-York Historical Society’s exhibit is based on the historians Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell’s book, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History.”
There is something oddly moving about looking at objects that Lincoln touched, the actual words that moved him, the pages that gave birth to the ideas by which he lived and for which he died.
It is both thrilling and on some deep level not surprising to know that Abraham Lincoln, who after all lived in a time and place where there were not very many Jews, was a Judeophile, who counted Jews among his closest friends (and not in a my-best-friends-are-Jews kind of way). It does not seem accidental that he was called Father Abraham, which of course is Avraham Aveinu in English. In many ways, both fathers Abraham were founders of the two groups – our people and our nation – in which we live.
It was President Lincoln who moved the nation away from the Christian-centric language of the founding fathers to the more inclusive language we know today.
Fittingly, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes translated the Gettysburg Address, that stirring document that still has the power to make a reader’s eyes tear and her hair stand up on the back of her neck, into Hebrew. It’s the kind of speech – spare, intellectually dense, and strongly metered, with a strong sense of cause and effect – that brings biblical text to mind. Next, he set it to haftarah trope, and then, on the Monday of Presidents Day weekend 2014, he chanted it, after the Torah reading.
Even 150 years later, we mourn Lincoln, murdered at 56. Who knows what he would have done had he lived. Maybe the aftermath of the war might have gone better. Maybe some of the scourged scars of racism might have been healed had he been able to oversee the process – or maybe the damage was too deep for that. Certainly he deserved better.
Still, we Americans, we Jews, we human beings, are better than we would have been had Abraham Lincoln not had the life he led, and for that we are grateful.