Pesach & The Civil War

April 13, 2011

The American Civil War (1861–1865) began on April 12, 1861. Hence, Pesach 2011 comes within the secular calendar month in which, 150 years ago, this country began “a great civil war.” Moreover, that war’s causes and results fit with the holiday’s themes—the end of slavery and, as President Abraham Lincoln put it in his great Gettysburg Address, the creation of “a new birth of freedom.” Speaking of Lincoln, I’m pleased to have in my possession a rare book published in 1909 titled, Abraham Lincoln and the Jews. In this work one can read of the great affinity and dare I say respect that President Lincoln displayed towards our people. This was in stark contrast however to the way in which General Ulysses S. Grant acted towards Jews.

In fact, Grant issued Order No. 11 on December 17, 1862 that expelled ALL Jews from those portions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi where his forces had taken the field (see here for more on this). This edict was never followed because Lincoln had General Henry Halleck write to General Grant and tell him that, “as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deems it necessary to revoke it.” Who knows…perhaps it was Lincoln’s respect for the Jewish people that allowed his side of the battle to ultimately be victorious…only Hashem knows for certain!

Interestingly, it is documented that there were Jews who fought on both the Confederate and Union side. That said, thanks to the recent Mifgashim email that I received I learned that:

Bertram W. Korn recounts in his 1961 book “American Jewry and the
Civil War” the story of two Jews, one northerner and one southerner,
who encounter each other on Pesach.

“One day during a Passover, Union soldier Myer Levy of Philadelphia
was walking through a captured Virginia town, when he saw a boy
sitting on the steps of his house and eating matzah. When Levy asked
for some, the boy leaped up and ran into the house shouting, ‘Mother,
there’s a damn-Yankee Jew outside!’ The boy’s mother came out and
invited Levy to return that evening for a Passover meal.”

What I enjoyed most from Korn’s citation was reading that this Jewish mother was showing her impressionable son that at the Seder we are not simply performing lip service! Rather, we don’t let politics get in the way of our brethren. After all we recite in the Ha Lachma Anya section:

This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread,
which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.
As we celebrate here, we join with our people everywhere.

May we merit to see the days in which there is no longer a divide amongst our people and come to serve Hashem in Jerusalem as a unified nation!

Happy Passover and let Freedom ring at your Seder!

p.s. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy this article:

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