Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Avraham Lincoln Avinu

Spielberg’s timely new Civil War biopic portrays a man leading his people to the gates of the Promised Land

Print Email

There has never been a more elaborate commemoration of an American leader than the 1909 centennial of Lincoln’s birth. The Lincoln who was memorialized on the National Mall was not the hero who abolished slavery but the one who preserved the Union; blacks invited to its 1922 dedication ceremony were seated, less than optimally, in a designated “colored section.” Not until 1939, when, having been forbidden to perform at Constitution Hall, the contralto Marian Anderson sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial was the association between the memorial and racial freedom concretized.

While it would be an overstatement to say that American Jews popularized the notion of Lincoln as liberator, it is true that the development of that Lincoln coincides with the Americanization of Jewish immigrants—and particularly the coming of the New Deal. Yet in some ways the Jewish Lincoln was born the moment the man himself died. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, America’s martyred leader was eulogized at Temple Emanu-El as the successor to the biblical Jewish patriarch: “Even as God said to Abraham, the patriarch, that he was to be the father of many peoples, so did God select Abraham Lincoln to be the protector and father of a great people.” A Baltimore rabbi called the slain president “spirit of our spirit and essence of our essence,” with a nature that was “truly Judaic.”

Sixty years later, the comparison between Lincoln and Moses was commonplace. According to historian Beth S. Wenger, whose History Lessons details the formation of an American-Jewish heritage, “More than any other American hero, Lincoln was embraced in radical Jewish circles.

Yiddish schools nearly always celebrated his birthday, teaching children to revere the Great Emancipator. … [Yiddish poet] Morris Rosenfeld described Lincoln as a champion of human rights who freed the nation’s conscience.

Certain Jewish socialists even went so far as to claim that their esteem for Lincoln was more authentic than that of most Americans.

(One case in point, writer-director Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, born in the Bronx to an immigrant family of free-thinking radicals, would grow up to be the dean of the Hollywood blacklist.)

In the 1930s, Lincoln was cast as the progressive forebear of Franklin Roosevelt, another president imagined to be Jewish, albeit by anti-Semites. This New Deal-Pop Front Lincoln can be found in Carl Sandberg’s two-volume, best-selling biography; in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, with Henry Fonda in the title role; and in FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Abe Lincoln in Illinois—not to mention as the namesake of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln School, the volunteer fascist-fighting Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and, a bit later, New York’s New Lincoln school and the Lincoln Farm Work Camp in Roscoe, N.Y.

The fictional embodiment of the people’s Lincoln is Ira Ringold, the working-class hero of Roth’s I Married a Communist, who rises to fame in the aftermath of World War II as a Lincoln impersonator doing “a bang-up job bringing Lincoln to the masses.” Ringold is a modern-day Jewish Lincoln, addressing union meetings and political rallies and even responding to audience questions as the Great Emancipator: “Lincoln supporting price controls. Lincoln condemning the Smith Act. Lincoln defending workers’ rights. Lincoln vilifying Mississippi’s Senator Bilbo.” And, we might mentally add, with respect to the presidential election of 1948: Lincoln denouncing segregation. Lincoln speaking out against domestic fascism. Lincoln supporting the right of Jews to their own state in Palestine.

Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln is scarcely so topical or lithe. In fact, in a certain way, it’s timeless. There’s not much talk of God and—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” notwithstanding—even less talk of the Jewish prophet whose teachings are America’s official dogma. Not to say that certain biblical figures go unmentioned. In one of his last scenes, heavy with premonition of impending death, Lincoln tells his wife Mary that his greatest post-presidential desire is to visit the place “where David and Solomon walked”—Jerusalem: “I dream of walking in that ancient city.” In the Jewishly tinged cosmology of Lincoln, he pretty much does.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email

Remarkable, a whole lengthy piece about Abraham Lincoln being “Jewish”, in lieu of the new film, and there’s not a single mention of the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis’ mother was Jewish. But I expect nothing less from J. Hoberman, who must be busy preparing his new article in which he manages to name every last unattractive 1970s actor who was Jewish.

That’s a bubble. No other way to put it. Too many people in that bubble – especially too many people writing for Tablet.

P.S., almost forgot, but of course, Lincoln’s son in the film is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is totally Jewish. So the first family in this film is pretty Jewish, all things considered.

But I’m aware Gordon-Levitt exists outside the bubble, too.

Ezikiel says:

Not a word about Spielberg being a Zionist and Kushner Anti-Zionist? Did they ever argue?

This was a generally thoughtful and informative review marred only by the invidious injection of comments on the so-called 2010 Health Care tax increases rammed through an unsuspecting Congress by Ms. Pelosi, a lady who headlined a high-dollar fundraiser in May that was attended by U.S.-based Islamist groups and individuals linked by the U.S. government to the Hamas jihad group and to the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The donors at the undisclosed May 16 event included Nihad Awad, the co-founder of the Council on American Islamic Relations, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Investigative Project on Terrorism.

I am disappointed the irrelevant comparison was not edited out.

Sadly, even when they win, the hard left can’t resist spewing diviciveness.

jacob_arnon says:

I wouldn’t call Tony Kushner Jewish. He is only Jewish when he is attacking Israel.

Did somebody not get the memo – the Republicans were the ones that fought for the side of emancipation – the Democrats favored the side of slavery – indeed history is inconvenient for those who wish to shape it!

DEE RUSH says:

“Negro companion”? Are we still in the 1960s?

The song the Republican Congressman break into after the Amendment passes in the House of Representatives is “Battle Cry of Freedom,” not “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

DSama, ‘[R]ammed through an unsuspecting Congress by Ms. Pelosi.’ [??] That’s so absurd it’s hilarious. But you manage to top yourself by claiming Pelosi is part of some Muslim plot against America. They could use your kind of imagination in Hollywood.

Versus Abaddon says:

Lincoln was possibly Melungeon.

Interesting take on this over-rated movie, albeit, one I liked and would recommend. But I don’t think the future will look favorably on Speilberg and Kushner’s politically correct and 2012 treatment of events that occurred almost 150 years earlier. I don’t understand why those on the Left consistently wish to revise and reinterpret history from how it actually occurred and in “Lincoln”, the Kushner screenplay’s bending of facts to better support its narrative really is over the top.

Ultimately, Lincoln the man and his record speak for itself and doesn’t require reinterpretation..

I enjoyed the movie but if it was referencing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) I must have missed it as it never occurred to me. In any event, it would not be relevant. The situation with the 13th Amendment was that the next Congress had already been elected and was overwhelmingly Republican so the Amendment would have passed easily when it came into session. However, for good reason, Lincoln wanted to strike in the lame duck session. His task was to bring aboard members of the opposition party. In the case of the ACA the issue was not whether to have health care legislation or not. Republican alternatives were introduced but blocked from debate by the Democratic leadership in Congress. When control of the Senate was lost due to MA electing a Republican in a race where the ACA was an issue, the Democrats used a parliamentary procedure to pass the ACA solely with Democratic votes. Ironically, there was bipartisan opposition in the House. The ACA is exactly the opposite of the 13th Amendment. In Jan 1865 the country had already elected a new Congress which would support the Amendment even if the current one might not. In Jan 2010 the Democrats knew they would lose control of the Senate in a few weeks and public opinion polls opposed the ACA but the Democrats could pass it without the other party and did so.

slobjones says:

The great film critic J. Hoberman really should know that Sally Field’s name is not “Sally Fields.”

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Avraham Lincoln Avinu

Spielberg’s timely new Civil War biopic portrays a man leading his people to the gates of the Promised Land

More on Tablet:

Watch Elderly Jews Explain Yiddish Words

By Stephanie Butnick — You wouldn’t plotz if you lost a bingo game; zaftig is ‘more plump than heavy’