Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Jews: An Untold Story
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.
Grant's notorious Order #11was the only evidence of an anti-Semitic order issued under his signature by his Adjutant Jonathan Rawlins. While Gen. Sherman was known to be anti-Semitic there is no known evidence that either one was responsible for issuing consistant anti-Semitic statements to the troops. Dr. Simon Baruch was a Confederate Army Surgeon but not its Surgeon-General. Approximately 2500 Jews fought for the Confederacy but not 25,000.In 1870 Grant as President appointed Gen. Edward S. Solomon as Governor of Washington Territory.
Sussman asks, "But if Spielberg had smuggled him in two years off schedule, who would have noticed?" For another figure he writes, "The poetic license involved in putting him on the scene would not have been very great at all." Why not inject Moses? He might have been there, at least in spirit. What's a few thousand years? Besides, Moses said "Let my people go" and he freed the slaves from Egypt. Why not squeeze in Commodore Uriah P Levy? He was commander of the US Navy's Mediterranean Fleet. So he died a few years before the movie's events took place, but it would have been poetic.
In an odd way, I am thinking of Woody Allen's film Zelig. Perhaps that's why Zelig was the greatest Jewish film of all time. But maybe General Solomon could have figured in the film or maybe Edward Rosewater. So what right?
Let's be careful not to take Jewish pride too far, to expect that we have to be recognized for every single thing every single time--expect that Hollywood has to take this route, and that Spielberg especially has to do this. Maybe in Saving Private Ryan he did it too much? Why didn't he include tank commander General Maurice Rose? Why not my Uncle Joe Robbin who landed in Normandy on D-Day? Why not make a whole fake movie about Jewish soldier in World War Two? hey they did it--called Inglorious Bastards or some such thing--a total fiction.(Now Captain Herbert Sobel -he was a real figure, but played by David Schwimmer???)
We are present and visibly enough in Hollywood and the entertainment media. There is no need to complain because Spielberg did not see fit to inject another Jew into a movie about Lincoln. If you want to get picky, he could have mentioned that the ferryboat Lincoln took to Hampton Roads, a crucial historical part of the film, embarked from my town of Annapolis, MD. That's a fact. The boat was shown but Annapolis was not mentioned. Lincoln came to Annapolis and that was ignored. Of course, they also left out that in downtown Annapolis, a prominent building was owned by Aaron Lee Goodman. So what?
We should be craving more truly historically accurate films yet when it comes to Hollywood, a place we Jews pretty much invented, we've done pretty well.But let's keep the history real and not place a Jew in a film just to place a Jew in a film.Generals Grant and Lee were in the film but is the lack of General Solomon or telegraph operator Rosewater really an issue? A legitimate issue?
Don't forget the carriage ride in which Field and Day-Lewis muse about the possibility of traveling to Israel, "of seeing the ground on which King David and King Solomon trod," or something to that likeness. I can't remember the exact words, but that line seems somewhat a remark of tribute to the Jewish heritage, wouldn't you agree? Perhaps it was intentionally placed there by Spielberg for such a "cameo" moment.
Maybe I am reading too much into this piece, but, as an Israeli, I see America undergoing a seismic shift in its values and ethos and it wouldn't surprise me to find that many American Jews are uncomfortable with this. We saw evidence of this at the Democratic Party Convention when proposals were made to include mention in the party platform of an "undivided Jerusalem" and even G-d, and these were shouted down by the delegates. While it is true that Jews have reached unprecendented levels of influence in America, it has been proven time and time again that this arouses increasing levels of resentment among the rest of the population (remember Weimar Germany? The supposed "Golden Age" in Spain?). As "progressive" political correctness increases its influence, particularly among those who support President Obama and his political allies, Jews are attracting increased attention, and it is not always positive, particularly because of the Jewish connection with Israel which is increasing unpopular in those "progressive" circles. That is why it think that at least subconciously, Sussman may want to have had Jews associated with this film, in order to say "hey, we had a role in the Emancipation, too!-Jews are as 'progressive' as anyone here in America!". Is exilic discomfort raising its head in America, which was always believed to be "different" for its Jews?
Unfortunately, Jews have had too much history.
He was the first Jewish senator in American history—and a vociferous supporter of slavery and an aggressive promoter of Indian “removal.” In 1861, Yulee gave the first speech in the Senate to announce the secession of a Southern state.
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