The North, the South, the Civil War, and us
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The North, the South, the Civil War, and us

In Teaneck, Princeton rabbi to examine the war's roots, its results, and its effects on the Jews

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Harper’s Ferry insurrection

Maybe you think that we fought the Civil War to stop slavery.

Maybe you think that the causes of the war were entirely economic, and had nothing to do with slavery.

Maybe you think that good and evil were clear in the Civil War, and that the North – that would be us – represented unsullied virtue.

Well, you’d be wrong, according to Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. The North was as morally culpable as the South in the great vice of slavery. There were no angels. He will discuss his understanding of American history at length and in detail during Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on Friday, May 29, at 8 p.m., in a talk he’s called “An Impartial Jewish View of the War of Yankee Aggression.” The talk coincides with the 150th anniversary of the war’s end.

Rabbi Wisnia, who grew up as an avid supporter of the North, came by his love of freedom and of liberators logically. His father, David, came from Warsaw; he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, sent out to work as a forced laborer- “my daddy was strong. We Wisnias are a hale, hearty bunch,” he said – jumped off a train, was picked up by American soldiers, worked as the personal interpreter for the captain in charge of the parachute regiment that rescued him, and eventually was given U.S. citizenship.

(His father recently went back to Auschwitz for the commemoration of its liberation, 70 years ago; it was David Wisnia, now 86, who chanted El Moleh Rachamim there.)

When he came to the country, David Wisnia became a salesman. He sold encyclopedias so well that his company moved him, his wife, Hope, and their children to Levittown, Pa.

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Rabbi Eric Wisnia

Rabbi Wisnia is an unstoppable storyteller, unable to resist the lure of any side story as it beckons to him. Soon after World War II, Bill Levitt built two eponymous towns. One was on Long Island, the other in Pennsylvania. Both were filled with mass- produced houses that also were sturdy, well-planned and well-constructed, and affordable to recently discharged servicemen and their families, particularly through the G.I. Bill. “Bill Levitt’s daughter is a member of my synagogue now,” he said. “Bill’s wife, Sonia, is still around, and I tell her how wonderful Levittown was.”

It was through Levittown that he developed his lifelong obsession with the Civil War, Rabbi Wisnia said.

“There I was, little Eric Wisnia, living in Levittown, Pennsylvania. In the late 1950s, a craze hit America. It was the Civil War Centennial” – a nationwide commemoration that began in 1957 and ended in 1965. “Everybody was talking about it. Everybody.

“It was in Life magazine. It was in Look magazine. It was the cool thing to talk about.

“I started hearing about it as a good Northern boy in Levittown, how those nasty Southerners were racists, and the good Northerners were the boys who saved the black man. And I bought it. I drank the Kool Aid.”

And of course the Southerners lived up to their stereotype by “beating up civil rights workers,” Rabbi Wisnia said. “It was pretty clear to me that we Yankees had fought the war to free the slaves, and that those Southerners were bad.”

In August of 1957, however, “a black family tried to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania,” Rabbi Wisnia said. “They were not well received.

“There was a cross burned on their lawn, and then there were race riots.

“So here I was, an 8-year-old boy, studying the Civil War, and then to see this… I kept saying, ‘No, no, no. This is not true. This cannot be happening in Levittown. This is not Georgia.’

“What I began to find out in a hard way is that racism is as American as apple pie,” he said. “The Yankees have managed to whitewash their conscience by blaming racism on the South. But the stories we have always been taught about the Confederacy – it ain’t necessarily so.”

That was the beginning of a lifelong passion for Rabbi Wisnia. He is a self-taught but serious historian of the Civil War. His undergraduate degree, from the University of Pennsylvania, was in religion – logical enough for someone who knew he wanted to be a rabbi – and his ordination was from Hebrew Union College, but his spare-time reading was all about the antebellum period, the war itself, and its aftermath.

Wait. What about the Jews? “The Charlestown census of 1860 shows that before the war, there were about 800 Jews living there. They were free and equal, and those Jews owned 50 slaves. I am not proud of that fact, as a rabbi, but lest you condemn those Jews, you will notice, right near that in the census, that there were 1,000 free black citizens of Charleston.

“They were free and equal, those black citizens. And they owned 1,500 slaves.”

This sorry story started far before the Civil War.

“When some of my colleagues and friends get on their high horses as Yankees, often I point out to them that of course they should have supported the British during the colonial rebellion, because the British freed all their slaves.

“The British took New York immediately after the American revolution began, and it became a haven for free blacks,” he said. There had been slaves in the city, but the British freed them. “There were many free blacks in British-controlled New York. When the British left, what do you think happened?”

Yes, he said. The Americans – we Americans – re-enslaved them.

“New Jersey was a slave state,” he said. He’s right. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves held by the South. The Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, was passed in 1865, “over New Jersey’s objections,” Rabbi Wisnia said. New Jersey did not ratify it until 1966; it was one of the last states to do so.

There are many romantic myths that cloak the brutality, madness, and fratricide that made up the Civil War, Rabbi Wisnia continued. He believes that John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, was the catalyst that started the war, and that John Brown was not a hothead or a stern abolitionist pushed to sacrifice by and for God, but a sociopathic butcher.

“John Brown was a murderer, and he decided that the only way to free this country was to cleanse it with blood,” Rabbi Wisnia said. “He decided that he would take the armory in Harper’s Ferry, give guns to the blacks, and have them rise up and slaughter the white Southerners.”

Ironically – and tragically – the first man killed in the raid was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man whose job was to guard the arsenal. “Virginia allowed him to carry a gun,” Rabbi Wisnia said. “He refused to hand over his keys to John Brown – and John shot him.” (One of the ways that Rabbi Wisnia’s deep immersion in the Civil War manifests itself is his tendency to talk about its characters by their first names, as if he knew them then. Certainly he knows them now.)

“Brown was crazy, and he scared the crap out of every Southerner,” Rabbi Wisnia continued. “The newspapers handled it as if he was a hero. And so from that point on, they were convinced that the Northerners would free the slaves and give them guns, and that they’d kill everyone.”

That’s what led to the secession of the first Southern states, he said. The second group of states left over the principle of states’ rights, but the first seceded because they were afraid that if they did not, President Lincoln would arm the slaves, and the slaves would kill them.

Most Southerners did not own slaves, Rabbi Wisnia said. That did not stop them from prejudice. “They were all bigots,” he said firmly. But it did mean that they did not have the same economic interest in slavery that the slave-owner had.

And there’s more.

“It cost $2,000 to buy a good black male slave,” Rabbi Wisnia said; that would be the equivalent of $60,000 today. “Let’s say that you were to buy 10 slaves. That would be a lot of money. You’d have to go to the bank to finance them.

“And guess where the banks were? In New York. So who really owned all the slaves in America? New York banks!”

Rabbi Wisnia’s defense of the South is not a defense of slavery, or of bigotry, or of racial discrimination. It is an attack against hypocrisy and denial. “I think racism is terrible,” he said. “I think skin color is less important than blood type. My campaign is about the fact that we have to understand our history.

“The Yankees whitewashed the war by portraying themselves as good guys. They never had to face their own racism.

“The more we know about the Civil War, the more we will begin to deal with racism in this country. Let’s admit it and move on. Let’s have a frank discussion.”

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