We Called Him Rab­bi Abra­ham: Lin­coln and Amer­i­can Jew­ry, A Doc­u­men­tary History

Gary Philip Zola
  • Review
By – October 14, 2014

Rab­bi Abra­ham” was a term of endear­ment used by Jew­ish sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln, writes Gary Philip Zola in his fas­ci­nat­ing book, We Called Him Rab­bi Abra­ham: Lin­coln and Amer­i­can Jew­ry: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry. It was a nick­name much like the term Father Abra­ham” pop­u­lar­ized in the Union Army. The six­teenth pres­i­dent was arguably the first man to arrive in the White House hav­ing frat­er­nized with a con­sid­er­able num­ber of Jews pri­or to assum­ing the pres­i­den­cy,” reports Zola.

Lin­col­n’s rela­tion­ships with Jews date back to his polit­i­cal activ­i­ties before his pres­i­den­cy. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Lin­col­n’s era was pre­dom­i­nant­ly com­posed of Ger­man-speak­ing Jews who arrived in the Unit­ed States in the mid-1830s and the 1860s. Many of the immi­grants had been activists” in the lib­er­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments of their home­lands. The fail­ure of the rev­o­lu­tions in their home coun­tries and the reac­tionary respons­es drove them to seek eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty and the democ­ra­cy promised in the Amer­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion. Many set­tled in Illi­nois, Indi­ana, Ken­tucky, Mis­souri, Ohio, and Wis­con­sin and quick­ly seized the chance to be par­tic­i­pants in the hurly-burly world of pol­i­tics on the fron­tier” and in the debate over slav­ery in Amer­i­ca. This was also the world of the leg­is­la­tor and future pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lincoln.

Linoln con­tin­ued his rela­tion­ships with Jew­ish com­mu­nal lead­ers and indi­vid­u­als through­out his pres­i­den­cy which often meant Jew­ish spokesper­sons felt com­fort­able enough to approach Pres­i­dent Lin­coln on issues of Jew­ish con­cern. Zola vivid­ly and metic­u­lous­ly describes these encoun­ters and doc­u­ments them with pho­tos, pres­i­den­tial orders, cor­re­spon­dence, and news­pa­per accounts high­light­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the occur­rences. An exam­ple is Lin­col­n’s inter­ces­sion in the chap­lain­cy con­tro­ver­sy” in 1861. The prac­tice of hir­ing only Chris­t­ian chap­lains irri­tat­ed the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, as it meant Jew­ish reli­gious lead­ers could­n’t serve as chap­lains even in most­ly Jew­ish reg­i­ments. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty mobi­lized an action in 1861 through the Board of Del­e­gates of Amer­i­can Israelites (BODAI), the first nation­al Jew­ish civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion. BODAI sent Rev­erend Fis­chel of the New York Con­gre­ga­tion Shearith Israel to Wash­ing­ton to per­son­al­ly speak to Pres­i­dent Lin­coln and to plead the case for hir­ing Jew­ish chap­lains to meet the needs of the Jew­ish ser­vice­men. Fis­chel did per­son­al­ly speak to Pres­i­dent Lin­coln, who agreed that reg­u­lar­ly ordained min­is­ters of any reli­gious soci­ety” should be able to serve as mil­i­tary chap­lains. The Pres­i­dent then set in motion actions to over­turn the Chris­tians-only policy.

Still anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing case in which Jew­ish spokesper­sons per­son­al­ly approached LIn­coln was the retrac­tion of the infa­mous Gen­er­al Orders No. 11 issued by Gen­er­al Ulysses Grant in 1861. Gen­er­al Orders No. 11 man­dat­ed that The Jews, as a class, vio­lat­ing every reg­u­la­tion of trade estab­lished by the Trea­sury Depart­ment and also depart­ment orders are here­by expelled from the depart­ment with­in twen­ty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” This order empow­ered region­al com­man­ders in Ken­tucky, Ten­nessee, and parts of Alaba­ma and Mis­sis­sip­pi to ban­ish all Jews — men, women, and chil­dren — from their areas, there­by forc­ing them to aban­don their homes and busi­ness­es. This occurred in Pad­u­c­ah, Ken­tucky, where all the Jew­ish res­i­dents were expelled from the town. The whole Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty (expect two sick women) got on steamships and went up the Ohio Riv­er toward Cincin­nati. The shock of the injus­tice of Gen­er­al ORder No. 11 pro­voked two Jew­ish broth­ers, Cesar and Julius Kaskel, to send a telegram direct­ly to Pres­i­dent Lin­coln protest­ing the unfair­ness of the order. Cesar Kaskel fol­lowed up by going direct­ly to Wash­ing­ton and enlist­ing the help of an Ohio con­gress­man. Togeth­er they secured a per­son­al meet­ing” with Lin­coln. As a result of that meet­ing, Lin­coln revoked the order by send­ing a telegram direct­ly to Gen­er­al Grant, order­ing him to rescind Gen­er­al Order No. 11.

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. Index, notes, pho­tos, references.

Relat­ed content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions