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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.  

Relevant Links
Lincoln’s “Limp”  Judy Sokolow, Jewish Ideas Daily. Steven Spielberg’s recent portrayal of Abraham Lincoln poses one of the central problems of politics: Must an individual be calculating and deceitful in order to be a great leader?

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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SEYMOUR SEREBNICK on January 14, 2013 at 6:35 am (Reply)
You did not mention Spielberg and his cartoon on FIEVEL MOUSEWITZ
Martin Gray on January 14, 2013 at 7:08 am (Reply)
As an American Jewish historian and as a Rabbi, I appreciate Rabbi Sussman's comments on Spielberg's movie Lincoln. As an Ashkenazi Jew his comments don't surprise me. It might be even more interesting for Rabbi Sussman to have noted the participation of Jews in the Confederacy. They were the largest single ethnic group to fight for the Confederacy. More then 10,000 Jews of Sephardic descent long settled in the South, and a few more recent Ashkenazi arrivals, fought with great distinction on the Confederate side, some rising to positions of particular prominence like Judah Benjamin, who was so well known, and others less known, like Simon Baruch, who rose to become the Surgeon General of the Confederacy. Rabbi Sussman might have also noted that Grant and Sherman consistently issued anti-Jewish proclamations and regulations while General Robert E. Lee insured that Jews were allowed to celebrate all of their holy days. But then the inclusion of Jews in the movie might have raised the uncomfortable issue for Spielberg that Lincoln's North tolerated its Jews with much less amity then did the Confederacy.
    Irwin J. Miller on January 31, 2013 at 11:17 pm (Reply)
    Unfortunately some of Martin Gray's comments regarding Jews in the Civil War contain some inaccuracies which require correction. The assertion that both Grant and Sherman consistently issued anti-Semitic proclamations is without foundation.
    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.
Paul Foer on January 14, 2013 at 7:23 am (Reply)
I found the movie compelling too, but completely disagree with the rabbi on a number of points. First of all, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens? Yuck. A Texan with a Texas accent playing a senator from Massachusetts? (Mainly so they could have shown him sleeping with his Black mistress) A worse choice would have been hard to find. Now Chunky Cohen was probably a character from his childhood and as for the Private Melish in Saving Private Ryan, well--that entire movie, which I found incredibly moving and have watched many times was really a work of fiction. Why Melish? Wasn't that a character in a Woody Allen film too? Bananas--right? And speaking of Lincoln and fiction, the profound letter that General Marshall reads by Lincoln in the beginning of the film--well, that may not have really been written or sent by Lincoln. But I am disturbed by the rabbi's premise that Spielberg should have stretched historical fact even more, just to make sure that a Jew--any Jew, would get a Melish or Chunky-like cameo role in the movie. Sussman writes that "it would have been even better if he had put at least one Jew in the movie, somewhere." Why???? How about a pink-haired lesbian butch? After all, Lincoln might have actually met one...once. How about General Solomon? How about his podiatrist? How about his radio operator?
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?
Keith Reitman on January 14, 2013 at 7:53 am (Reply)
I agree with this writer in his clearly thought out article. Good point Lance!
Patricia O'Sullivan on January 14, 2013 at 8:52 am (Reply)
Excellent point about the lack of depictions of Jews in stories about American history. The pop culture obsession with the Founding Fathers also has done little to reveal the important roles Jews played in colonial history and during the Revolutionary War. With so many Civil War film and TV projects coming out soon from Hollywood, I wonder if any of them will include mention of Jews on both sides of the Mason Dixon line who participated in the conflict. You can read more about early colonial Jews here:
Allan Arkush on January 14, 2013 at 9:36 am (Reply)
It's fitting that Rabbi Sussman should be the one to make these observations. The first rabbi of his congregation, Keneseth Israel, David Einhorn, came to Philadelphia in 1861, after he was chased out of Baltimore on account of his anti-slavery sermons. One of Sussman's other predecessors at KI was Bertram Korn, author of what remains the best book on the Civil War and the Jews.
TXJew on January 14, 2013 at 9:53 am (Reply)
Really? He didn't show any of the leading abolitionists outside the COngress, black or white, and now we're whinging that we weren't included either? Lance, I love you, but this is stretch. As you yourself acknowledge at the end, we had no material role in the 14th Amendment. Going out of his way to gratitiously highlight something irrelevant (like Jews, or nudity) to please a segment of the audience has a name - pandering.
JP Benjamin on January 14, 2013 at 10:10 am (Reply)
for a contrary perspective see
Rocky on January 14, 2013 at 10:15 am (Reply)
I saw the movie a few weeks ago and wasn't at all upset about its lack of a Jewish character. I am a lot more upset with the fact that the French movie "La Rafle" has not been available for purchase in the US (at Ameazon or elsewhere) in a DVD format that is playable on US machines. Two members of my extended family were impacted by the second roundup of Paris Jews in 1942. Fortunately, they both survived. It appears the the US distributor (probably Jewish) has chosen to keep the 2010 movie off the DVD market and to restrict its availability to the Jewish film festival circuit. Shame on the distributor. The DVD is available in Canada at with English subtitles and is playble on US machines.
Rabbi Jacob Herber on January 14, 2013 at 10:21 am (Reply)
Lance, with all due respect, this wasn't about American Jews, it was about President Abraham Lincoln's heroic effort to pass the 13th Amendment through a divided and contentious Congress. It was about the fight to end slavery in America. It was about the promise of freedom for millions of African Americans. It's not always about us.
Adam Martin on January 14, 2013 at 10:49 am (Reply)
"...So couldn’t Spielberg have done something like that in Lincoln?"

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.
    Pinchas Baram on February 4, 2013 at 12:28 am (Reply)
    We know Lincoln was friendly towards Jews, knew his Bible, and regarded his own first name positively, but did he ever actually express the wish to visit the streets of Jerusalem where David and Solomon trod-- as expressed at the end of the film in the carriage-ride scene? Did Tony Kushner make that line up, or did Kushner get it from the historian Doris Kearns or someone else? I'm very curious and would be pleased if someone can answer clearly.
Hannah on January 14, 2013 at 11:40 am (Reply)
He also could have shown that Judah P Benjamin was the first member of our tribe to hold a cabinet level position in a US government---he was viewed as "The Brains of the Confederacy."
Henry Frank on January 14, 2013 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
R Sussman was our docent on a trip to Gettysburg. His descriptions of the Jewish participation in that battle made me marvel that anyone could say "Jews don't fight." That attitude was the inspiration in 1896 for forming the organization that is now called the Jewish War Veterans of the USA.
Charles Gilinsky on January 14, 2013 at 3:13 pm (Reply)
To Jew or not to Jew. Rabbi Sussman has a great sense of humor
Mike Weaver on January 14, 2013 at 5:43 pm (Reply)
I would have appreciated far more than historical accuracy Spielberg being creative enough to produce a quality movie without using the Lord thy God's name in vane. Did the repetive use of vulgar language enhance the movie? If so, shame on us for such low expectations.
ed on January 14, 2013 at 11:19 pm (Reply)
its ok that spielberg didn't say anything. lincoln was buried among the Jews in the cemetery in illinos. everyone that visits the cemetery will see and wonder why he is buried among so many jews.
Patricia O'Sullivan on January 15, 2013 at 11:07 am (Reply)
Ed, what a strange comment. First, Lincoln's tomb is rather isolated at Oak Ridge Cemetery - there are not any graves next to the Lincoln tomb. The restrooms and parking lot are closer than any other grave. Second, thousands of people are buried at Oak Ridge and most of them have Christian markers. I'm not sure why you thought it necessary to single out the Jewish graves, which are fewer in number. A Jewish temple, B'rith Sholom, owns land in Oak Ridge for its members. This section of Oak Ridge is not adjacent to Lincoln's tomb. Lincoln is not 'buried among so many Jews' as you wrote. However, if he was, why would that be a cause for wonder?
Helen Schulman on January 16, 2013 at 8:51 am (Reply)
Suggesting that Jews connected with Lincoln should have been included in the movie even though not historically present, is insulting. We don't need to tweak history in order to make our presence known. I agree, however, that the contributions of Jews in American history prior to the 1880's is understated. As usual, our participation is disproportionate to our numbers and worthy of note. Certainly these contributions should be made known to our students in yeshivas and day school programs.
Y. Ben-David on January 17, 2013 at 12:50 am (Reply)
I am afraid I hear a note of defensiveness in Sussman's piece. Jews are not the subject of this movie and I don't see what it would be necessary for Spielberg to go out of his way to include one, any more than it would be necessary to include token members of all the ethnic groups that composed American society at the time.
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?
jack h. markowitz on January 17, 2013 at 5:13 pm (Reply)
You mean to say that Lincoln wasn't Jewish? But the hat, the beard, the facial mole...could have fooled me.
Paul Foer on January 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm (Reply)
Yes Lincoln was Jewish--of course--with the name Abraham? Oringally it wa linkinsky but of course, he changed it. Oh that we've gotten this far, let's pause to look at John Wilkes Booth. There is speculation, and some research has been done, that suggests he was descended from Sephardic Jews named Botha. I am NT making this up--and what a name that is associated with in South Afrika. Oy vey! The hat! The mustache! Is that where the Broadway expression "Break a Leg" came from?
Lance Sussman on January 18, 2013 at 8:23 am (Reply)
To place my opinion piece on Lincoln in perspective, it is important to understand that President Lincoln personally did more to demarginalize Jews and Judaism than any President since Washington. By reversing both the prohibition on Jewish chaplains in the American Army and reversing Grant's expulsion order, he helped incrementally to move Jews and Judaism toward the center of the American experience. Viewed broadly, this is consistent with the battle to end slavery. Furthermore, Lincoln did receive many Jews in the White House and it is true that his Jewish foot doctor was a favorite visitor of the Lincoln family. Lincoln and the doctor were exchanging letters during the time the movie depicts. Zacharie was in the then liberated Savannah, Georgia to reunite with his family and kept the Lincoln family posted. Depicting a clearly Jewish character in the movie is thus not a mere matter of unwarranted ethnocentrism but a serious, real and important statement about Lincoln and the America he envisioned.
David on January 19, 2013 at 11:18 am (Reply)
It could have been verse-hearing Lincoln's opinion of the Confederacy's Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, Judah P. Benjamin!
charles hoffman on January 21, 2013 at 11:36 am (Reply)
Jews were there; but they were not the center of the story. And being in the periphery is often the safest and most comfortable place to be.

Unfortunately, Jews have had too much history.
Paul Foer on February 4, 2013 at 11:10 am (Reply)
Charles Hoffman asks a good and pertinent question. If I read Rabbi Lance Sussman correctly, and even some of the other online comments by him and others, it would appear that some would not care whether Lincoln actually said something about going to Jerusalem or not. But who would have heard it in the carriage ride? His wife? Did Lincoln write it somewhere. Again, is our goal here for entertainment values or to historical accuracy? Are we trying to use the medium of Hollywood entertainment for reason x or reason y? But again I take issue with Sussman whose comment on January 18 read "Depicting a clearly Jewish character in the movie is thus not a mere matter of unwarranted ethnocentrism but a serious, real and important statement about Lincoln and the America he envisioned." Sure. Maybe. Perhaps if the movies were "Lincoln and the Jews" or "The President's Podiatrist" but why not about his position on every other ethnic, religious and immigrant group or other minority
Nick on March 10, 2013 at 12:16 am (Reply)
How about missing Florida's senator David Yulee?
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.
ellyn wexler klein on March 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm (Reply)
Please send list of adult discussion/lectures or free classes. I'd also like email alerting me to upcoming events. Thank you , Ellyn
Martin Gray on March 18, 2013 at 9:12 pm (Reply)
To Mr.Irwin J.Miller; Suggest you Google Jews in the American Civil War and associated subjects. I'm sure you'll find factually correct evidence to support my numbers as well as the acceptance by and participation in the South's "War of Secession" by long settled Jews of Sephardic heritage. Check for the reference and further explanation. The facts about Grant and Sherman are accurately reported by a number of historians who were well documented on the subject. You can find all of this online. Grant's infamous order #11 was issued under his signature, and until rebuked by Lincoln, would have had all Jews removed from his area of control or the entire South for that matter. His views were held and reflected by many of the officers serving under him. I'm sure you'll find confirmatory evidence of the rank held by Simon Baruch as well. While we can disagree on numbers, there is no question that the long settled Sephardic community of 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Jews living in the South were passionate supporters of "the cause" and served the Confederacy with distinction and great honor. Ashkenazi Jews served in the Northern Army, including some of my own ancestors, fresh off the boat. There were several Jewish Generals in the Northern Army who served with great distinction. Many of these men were immigrants from Germany and Hungary although several were native born. As an example, Brigadier Alfred Mordechai was a West Point graduate and served with great distinction. I hope this helps clarify my previous remarks.

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