April 2, 2009
Civil War Jews Who Weren’t Just Whistlin’ Dixie
At the Passover seder next Wednesday evening, our children will recite the traditional question, “How is this night different from all other nights?” But the adults at the table are the ones who appreciate how this night really is different — not only from the rest of the year, but from the Passover seders of the past. As I started writing my third novel about Jewish spies during the Civil War, I began to wonder if American Jews had ever sat down at a seder where every part of the meal was served by slaves. As I discovered in my research, they did.
“All Other Nights,” released this week, is the story of Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union army who has relatives in New Orleans — including an uncle involved in a plot to kill Lincoln. When his commanders discover his connections, he is sent to New Orleans to assassinate his uncle at the Passover seder before the plot can progress. After this mission, he is offered another “opportunity,” this time involving the daughter of a Virginia family friend. But this time, his assignment isn’t to murder the spy, but to marry her — and then turn her in. Suffice it to say that this marriage doesn’t turn out the way anyone expected.
There were about 130,000 Jews in America at the time of the Civil War, and while the largest American Jewish community was, unsurprisingly, in New York, the second largest was in New Orleans. Like American Jews today, these Americans generally felt the passionate patriotism of those most grateful for the freedoms that no other country had ever offered them. They expressed that patriotism, whether they lived in the North or the South, by supporting and defending their home and its values — even when those values included keeping others enslaved. But the response of American Jews to the war differed from that of other Americans in one significant way. Many American religious denominations split at the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are “Southern” Baptists and “Southern” Methodists. But while there were already national Jewish organizations in America in the mid-1800s, including B’nai B’rith, none of them split during the Civil War. In the 19th century, most Americans didn’t have friends or relatives in other parts of the country, but many American Jews did — and could identify with people on the other side.
My novel is a work of fiction, but it was inspired by many real historical figures, including Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Jewish secretary of state, who also served as a spymaster (and who appears as a character in the book), as well as several Jewish spies who served the North and the South. One such spy, Issachar Zacharie of New York City, was sent on a mission to the Southern capital in 1863 to secretly confer with Judah Benjamin about a potential peace treaty. It seems that Zacharie’s connection to Benjamin prior to their meeting, which President Lincoln authorized, consisted of nothing more than their both being members of the tribe.
Among other Jewish figures from the period, one particular couple caught my attention. Eugenia Levy Phillips, a Jewish woman from South Carolina who was imprisoned for spying for the Confederacy, was married to Philip Phillips, a Jewish congressman from Alabama who was a political moderate and opposed the South’s secession from the Union. One can only imagine the arguments at their seder table — and the tensions unveiled as the husband used his political connections to try to free his wife from prison. I was intrigued by the way a marriage can transcend a historic moment, and how Jewish identity can transcend a historic moment as well.
The theme of Passover, with its story of emancipation, brought both the differences and commonalities of these American Jews to the fore. There are stories of hatreds and painful debates between pro-slavery and anti-slavery rabbis — and also stories of Northern Jews bringing matzah to military prison camps so that captured Southern Jewish soldiers could celebrate Passover.
Historical novels are often much more about the time in which they are written than about the time in which they take place. I was drawn to this period in history because of how polarized America has become in the past 10 years and because of how polarized the American Jewish community has become as well — over politics, over Israel, over religion, over almost everything that matters — to the point where it is impossible to discuss current events without knowing in advance the other person’s point of view. And I wondered what kind of new thinking we might need to transcend the divisions among ourselves as our ancestors once did.
The central theme of Passover is freedom from bondage, but it is clear from Jewish tradition that slavery is considered not only a physical but also a mental state. The question, “How is this night different from all other nights?” is not only about the rituals of the seder, but about the essential change that the children of Israel had to undergo to become free people, which is the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life and choices. In this sense, each of us must regard ourselves individually as if we, too, were freed from Egypt — not only by remembering the suffering of slavery, but by remembering that we share our ancestors’ ability to change.
The Civil War was at its heart a battle within a family, and that is something that any family who sits down at the same table year after year can appreciate. After many years of family gatherings in such a house divided, it may seem impossible for tonight to be different from all other nights — and this year, as Jewish communities around the world face some of the greatest political, financial and existential challenges in generations, with no consensus about how to meet them, many of us desperately need this night to be different. All of us wish we knew how to make it so. But recalling our Passovers past, in both the most shameful and most triumphant moments in our history, will always remind us of the greatest gift of our freedom: our capacity to change. And perhaps this year, that will be enough for us.
Dara Horn’s third novel, “All Other Nights,” has just been published by W.W. Norton. Read the first chapter on her Web site at www.darahorn.com.