"Jews and the Civil War" at New York's Center for Jewish
History brings together new scholarship, objects and stories.
Special to the Jewish News
n April 1850, Peter Still, a slave,
purchased his freedom from Joseph
Friedman, a sympathetic Jewish busi-
nessman in Tuscumbia, Ala., for $500. When
Still relocated with his family in the North,
he stayed in touch with Friedman. His slave
narrative, The Kidnapped and the Ransomed
... Being the Personal Recollections of Peter
Still and His Wife Vina After Forty Years of
Slavery, was published in the 1850s and
is included in a new exhibition, "Passages
through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War,"
which runs through Aug. 11 at the Center for
Jewish History in New York City.
Presented on the 150th anniversary of the
Civil War, the exhibition is a collaboration
between two institutions, Yeshiva University
Museum and the American Jewish Historical
Society, both housed in the center. The exhi-
bition brings together new scholarship and a
wide assortment of visual objects and stories
that are more than footnotes to the war. The
last time this material was explored in a
major exhibition was in 1960, at the centenni-
al, with "The American Jew in the Civil War"
at the Jewish Museum, also in New York.
"The Civil War was a major turning
point in American Jewish history:' says
Jacob Wisse, director of Yeshiva University
Museum. Jonathan Karp, executive direc-
tor of the American Jewish Historical
Society, agrees, pointing out that the
disruptive events gave the Jewish commu-
nity opportunities to participate fully in
American life, both on the battlefield and
the domestic front.
Karp calls the Civil War a crucible. In fact,
the war accelerated the process of accultura-
tion for the Jewish community, which was
then composed mainly of immigrants. It
emerged from the war as Americans, with
expanded freedom and opportunities.
Curated by Ken Yellis, the exhibition
draws on the holdings of the two sponsor-
ing institutions and also on the extensive
collection of Jewish Civil War memorabilia
owned by Robert Marcus of Fairfax, Va.
Some objects from that collection have
been previously exhibited but never this
many of them at once.
The exhibition describes the Jewish com-
munity circa 1860, covers the war through
military stories as well as through reports on
the home front, and also portrays the after-
math of the war.
Yellis explains that while the cura-
tors wanted to tell the story of how Jews
engaged fully in the country's core struggle
and collective trauma, they also wanted
to present the mirror image: "the ways in
which the talents, the skills, the networks,
the energy, the imagination, the courage,
the readiness to sacrifice, lead, get involved,
take a risk, lose one's life, and more, were
a gift to America in the crisis, a gift that
America very much needed"
Yellis is the kind of curator who likes
compression in exhibitions, the gather-
ing and juxtaposing of a large number of
objects and texts to convey a sense of great
energy Included here are historical paint-
ings, religious objects like prayer books that
may have been carried onto the battlefield,
handwritten letters, business records of
Jewish textile merchants, diaries, medals,
discharge documents, weapons, poetry by
a mother who lost her son, and the first
membership badge issued by the Hebrew
Union Veterans Association.
Two photographic portraits of unidenti-
fied Union and Confederate soldiers are by
Benedict "Ben" Oppenheimer, a deaf man
who served in the Confederate infantry and
cavalry. His job was to fire his company's
cannon as his hearing wouldn't be damaged.
Books also are showcased, including a
copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish, a sol-
dier's Haggadah and an illustrated book on
the foot by Isachar Zacharie, a podiatrist who
was Lincoln's closest Jewish friend; Zacharie
was sent on a secret mission to make peace
with his co-religionist Judah P. Benjamin, the
Confederacy's secretary of state.
For those buffs who savor every detail of
the Civil War and those whose interest was
only recently piqued by Steven Spielberg's
Lincoln, there's much to ponder.
As part of the exhibition, award-winning
director Oren Rudaysky made three short
films focusing on slavery, anti-Semitism and
the legacy of the war; they feature the words
of leading scholars in American Jewish his-
tory including Hasia Diner, Harold Holzer,
Adam Mendelsohn, Dale Rosengarten,
Jonathan Sarna and Lance Sussman.
Sarna says, "By shedding blood for the
country, Jews demonstrated they were part
of that country:'
Early on in the exhibition, a large and
detailed map tells the story of America's
Jewish population, which is a key to under-
standing Jewish involvement in the war. In
1840, the Jewish population of America was
15,000; 20 years later, in 1860, it was 150,000
and spread across the continent, in large cit-
ies and towns, in the North and South.
Yellis underlines the fact that, for the
most part, Jews sided with their region, with
those in the North fighting for the Union
and Jews in the South for the Confederacy;
in short, they echoed what was happening in
the larger society. As in the rest of America,
some Jewish families were split between
North and South, with brother fighting
brother. About 10,000 to 12,000 Jews served
in the armies and navies.
This hand-colored lithograph, published
around 1863 by Currier & Ives, is titled
The Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., and
depicts a scene from the fight, which
raged 150 years ago this week, from
July 1-3, 1863.
War in a Jewish family: Brothers Edward
Jonas, a Union soldier, and Charles H.
Jonas, who fought for the Confederacy.
The exhibition features stories of Jews who
rose to high ranks: Judah P. Benjamin, who
served as the Confederacy's secretary of war,
attorney general and secretary of state, and
lesser-known figures like Phoebe Pember, a
nurse from a prominent Charleston Jewish
family who was an administrator of a major
Confederate military hospital in Richmond;
Pember's sister Eugenia Levy Phillips of
New Orleans, who defied the Union gen-
eral Benjamin E "Beast" Butler; and Annie
Jonas and the women of Quincy, Mass., who
formed the Needle Pickets, to raise money to
aid the troops and their families.
The exhibition tackles the subject of
Jews and slavery directly. There were Jews
who were sympathetic to slavery and slave
owners, and those who were abolitionists.
But Yellis explains that there was little
discussion of slavery in the Jewish com-
munity until the Civil War — and "almost
dead silence from the pulpit until the fall
of 1860 and the election of Lincoln:'
The War on page 27
July 4 • 2013