Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Jews: An Untold Story

By Lance J. Sussman
Monday, January 14, 2013

I loved Lincoln as much as anyone and, as an American historian, took a special pleasure in it.  Among many other things, I thought the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens was terrific.  As the father of five children, all of whom grew up in the post-E.T. era, I am grateful to Steven Spielberg for having supplied my family with countless hours of great entertainment.  As someone descended, in part, from Jews forced to leave Germany in the 1930s and as a rabbi, I especially respect the work he did on Schindler’s List and his creation of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.  But as an American Jewish historian, I am, I'm afraid I have to say, somewhat disappointed with the latest Spielberg film.  So much of it is so good, but it would have been even better if he had put at least one Jew in the movie, somewhere.  

He has done it before.  Not everyone remembers (as I do, having seen it with one child after another) Spielberg’s 1985 adventure-comedy, Goonies, but no one who does can forget “Chunk” Cohen.  And, of course, there is Private Stanley Mellish, who, in Saving Private Ryan, taunts German P.O.W.s with the loud announcement that he’s a Jewish soldier.  So couldn’t Spielberg have done something like that in Lincoln

He had a lot of options.  In the very beginning of Lincoln, for instance, Spielberg briefly depicts the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry and has two United States Colored Troops talk about it.  Couldn’t they have said something about General Frederick C. Salomon, one of the Union commanders in this engagement, who was also a Jewish immigrant from Prussia? 

Then there’s the telegraph office at the War Department where some of the most engaging and entertaining episodes in the movie take place.  Couldn’t Spielberg have shown Lincoln chatting there with Edward Rosewater (né Rosenwasser, in Bohemia), the twenty-something telegraph operator who sent out the Emancipation Proclamation from that very office on January 1, 1863?  True, he was out of Washington and resettled in Omaha, Nebraska by early 1865, when almost all of the action in the movie occurs.  But if Spielberg had smuggled him in two years off schedule, who would have noticed--apart from the historians who have been busy documenting Lincoln’s minor inaccuracies in small-circulation journals?  

A lot of Lincoln depicts life in the family quarters of the White House.  Couldn’t we have been given a glimpse of Isachar Zacharie there?  An English Jewish podiatrist who had been recommended to Lincoln by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton,  Zacharie was, according to a September 24, 1864 editorial in the New York World, someone who “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln's confidence perhaps more than any other private individual” and was “perhaps the most favored family visitor at the White House.”  I’m not sure that Dr. Zacharie made any White House calls during precisely the months depicted in Lincoln, but we do have evidence that he corresponded with the president around this time, and the poetic license involved in putting him on the scene would not have been very great at all.  

Steven Spielberg omitted all of these people, I have to admit, without really detracting in any way from the quality of his outstanding film, which is truly a great American movie.  From the Jewish point of view, however, Lincoln represents a missed opportunity—an opportunity to inform a broader public (including far too many Jews) that Jews didn’t just show up in the United States after pogrom-makers began torching their neighborhoods in the Russian Pale of Settlement.  We were here and played significant parts in the nation’s life a considerable amount of time before that.  

Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.  He is the author of Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism and has lectured widely on American Jews and the Civil War.


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