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