“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.