Some of Abe Lincoln's Best Friends Were Jewish. Honestly.

The Relationship Between a President and His Chosen People

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By Julia M. Klein

Published March 29, 2015, issue of March 27, 2015.

● Lincoln and the Jews: A History
By Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell
Thomas Dunne Books, 288 pages, $40

As far as we know, Abraham Lincoln never said, “Some of my best friends are Jewish.” But he certainly could have. Lincoln did chide his anti-Semitic Civil War generals and others who expressed the prejudices of the day. “I myself have a regard for the Jews,” he informed one visitor.

So Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell tell us in “Lincoln and the Jews,” an elegant illustrated volume that reveals little-known aspects of Lincoln’s personal history. The book doubles as a catalog for a traveling exhibition appearing at the New-York Historical Society from March 20 through June 7. Both the show and the book use photographs, letters and other items from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, as well as from other archives and museums.

Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, and Shapell, founder of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, provide a chronological account of Lincoln’s relationship with Jews and Judaism that pauses periodically to detail specific friendships and accomplishments.

In their celebration of Lincoln, the authors deepen our admiration for him. Over the years, they argue, Lincoln’s egalitarian convictions strengthened, and “the connection between eradicating the persecution of blacks and ending the persecution of Jews must have seemed obvious” to him.

Within this basic storyline, the volume’s range is wide, at times idiosyncratically so. “Lincoln and the Jews” covers historical landmarks such as Lincoln’s appointment of the first Jewish military chaplain in 1862 and his revocation of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous order that same year expelling “Jews as a class” from territory under his military control. (Grant had become “persuaded that all smugglers, speculators and traders were Jews,” Sarna and Shapell write.)

The book touches, too, on a series of glancing encounters: Jews Lincoln pardoned (and failed to pardon), Jews he appointed and promoted, Jews whose wares or services he purchased, even plays he saw with Jewish themes.

“Lincoln and the Jews” discusses the attitudes of Jews, including prominent rabbis, toward Lincoln, and how they improved in tandem with his presidential accomplishments, notably the successful prosecution of the Civil War. Finally, the book argues that Lincoln’s growing appreciation of Jews fostered increasing social tolerance, helping “to transform Jews from outsiders in America to insiders.” (That is a decidedly optimistic view of a process that arguably took another century or more to complete.)

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