Marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, this exhibition focuses on the significant, and hitherto unknown, relationships and interactions between Abraham Lincoln and his Jewish friends and associates. At a time when Jews comprised less than one-half of one percent of the American population, and with the country rampant with prejudice, Lincoln’s positive and meaningful personal relationships with Jewish individuals not only arguably changed him but also had an important and lasting impact on the status of American Jews. Lincoln stood up to his anti-Semitic generals even as he depended upon them to win the war, and became an advocate for Jewish equality and acceptance.
Through never-before displayed original documents, artifacts, photographs, Lincoln's own writings, and first person accounts primarily from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, the exhibition will trace events in Lincoln’s life through the lens of his Jewish contemporaries.
Abraham Jonas was a Jewish lawyer in Quincy, Illinois whom Lincoln first met in 1843. Jonas was a staunch supporter of Lincoln throughout their more than two decades of friendship. The correspondence between the two men demonstrates their personal, professional, and political closeness, with Lincoln calling Jonas “one of my most valued friends.”
While Lincoln had granted a travel pass to his chiropodist and personal emissary, Issachar Zacharie following the fall of Savannah, Zacharie never made it to the city in December, having, on the way, been placed under arrest by Secretary of War Stanton. Untypically brusque, Lincoln shows his teeth to the Secretary of War. In a letter that commences with the term, "About Jews," Lincoln demands respect for Zacharie, and orders that he be given a second pass to Savannah.
Among Lincoln’s Jewish colleagues were C.M.Levy, the son-in-law of Rabbi Morris Raphall of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, was a well-known Orthodox Jew in New York. In response to his application for the position of quartermaster, responsible for the housing, transportation, clothing, and supply of the troops, Lincoln, on November 4, 1862, noted to Secretary of War Stanton, “We have not yet appointed a Hebrew.” Describing Levy as “a capable and faithful man” (the word faithful, with typical Lincoln wordplay, carried a double meaning), Lincoln appointed him Assistant Quarter-Master, with the rank of Captain. Some fifty other Jews likewise served as quartermasters in the Union army.
Peddling goods, a Jewish occupation going back to the Middle Ages in Europe, represented a natural starting point in America for young, male, immigrant Jews. Most of the 16,000 peddlers in America in 1860 were Jews. Needing little capital, as goods were usually acquired on credit from other Jews, hardworking peddlers could do well, accumulating resources sufficient to open dry goods and clothing stores throughout the frontier; some also moved into clothing manufacturing. Lincoln became acquainted with at least three Jewish clothiers in Illinois: Julius Hammerslough of Springfield, Henry Rice of Jacksonville, and Abraham Kohn of Chicago.
A Jewish doctor at Lincoln’s deathbed: Alonzo Chappel’s famous 1867 painting depicts the ten-by-fifteen-foot room in which Lincoln lay dying as large enough to be filled with almost as many doctors who later claimed to be there. Of the nine actually in attendance, Dr. Charles Liebermann, a Russian-born Jewish ophthalmologist and a leading Washington physician, is prominently featured here, gazing intently at the president. Lierbermann had attended at Lincoln’s deathbed throughout the nine-hour coma.
Furthermore, the exhibition will explore Lincoln’s profound interest in and connection to the Old Testament, as exemplified in his wish to see Jerusalem before he died.