In the first half of the 19th century, Washington, D.C. was a sleepy town. Though largely mapped out, it was still more or less unpopulated. Then came the Civil War, and both the federal government and the city’s population exploded. The sudden growth translated into a host of new opportunities for business—and for Jews.
This oft-overlooked chapter of American Jewish history is the focus of a new exhibition from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. The show, “Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City,” comprises a sort of crash course in 19th-century American Jewish life, with a focus on D.C. during the Civil War.
During the war years, the city’s Jewish population grew tenfold: from 200 to nearly 2,000. Seventh Street, now the heart of the city’s Chinatown, became a center of Jewish activity. The district was home to six kosher restaurants. (Washington today has only two.) Without a major industry in town, like the rag trade in New York, most Jewish businesses were mom-and-pop operations. “This neighborhood was never like the Lower East Side,” said David McKenzie, curatorial associate at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. “Jews were a significant minority within this neighborhood.”
It was only a matter of time before the Jewish community took part in the city’s chief industry: politics. The exhibition, an extension of this year’s bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, focuses on the president’s unique relationship with the city’s burgeoning Jewish community.
“Lincoln is probably the first president to really have personal associations with Jews,” said Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.
Lincoln’s closest Jewish contact was Isachar Zacharie—one of the president’s more unlikely aides. Zacharie first appeared in Lincoln’s life as his foot doctor, and soon became an unofficial adviser. The New York World wrote in 1864 that Zacharie “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s confidence, perhaps more than any other private individual [and was] perhaps the most favored family visitor to the White House.”
Lincoln’s openness to Zacharie and other Washington Jews helped to forge a lasting bond. After the president’s assassination, Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the most respected American rabbis of his day, offered this appreciation: “The lamented Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.… And, indeed, he preserved numerous features of the Hebrew race, both in countenance and character.”
“Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City,” will be on view at the Washington Hebrew Congregation until July 20 and then at the Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., through December.
Danielle O’Steen is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She has contributed to Washington Post Express, Capitol File, Art + Auction, DailyCandy, artinfo.com, and other publications.