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Repeat Performances

What Jewish rituals and Judaism share with Civil War reenactment and Southern culture

Dara Horn
March 23, 2010
(Joanna Neborsky)
(Joanna Neborsky)

I went into a ladies’ room last fall and saw a ghost. I had just arrived at a synagogue in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to give a lecture on All Other Nights, my novel about Jewish spies during the Civil War. As I hurried to the restroom before greeting my hosts, I opened the door and stopped short. In the mirror, next to my 21st-century reflection, was a woman wearing a 19th-century corset and petticoats, struggling to pull a calico dress over her hoop skirts.

But she was no ghost. The organizers of my appearance had decided to surprise me by hiring Civil War reenactors to entertain the crowd. In addition to the woman from the restroom, I was introduced to two uniformed men “from the 7th South Carolina Infantry,” along with a 14-year old drummer boy. They had constructed an officers’ tent in the synagogue’s social hall to display their pigs’-hair toothbrushes and period weaponry, including gunpowder packs, revolvers, and muskets.

Like anyone with a passionate interest in something beyond daily life, Civil War reenactors strike many people as obsessive-compulsives, motivated by some obscure commitment that the rest of us know we ought to humor in public—even if we privately believe that they’re nuts. I laughed at their get-ups when I saw them in Harrisburg—then I went home and built a sukkah in my backyard. Maybe such passions ought not seem so strange to me, I realized, given that Jews practically invented historical reenactment.

When I learned that Civil War reenactors sometimes adopt an ancestor’s name and rank, I was reminded of the duchening, the high priests’ blessing, at my family’s synagogue—when my husband, a Levite, washes the hands of the Kohanim before they bless the congregation. The same physical reliving of events occurs when worshippers prostrate themselves on the floor during the recitation of the Temple service on Yom Kippur, or when celebrants light Hanukkah candles. The Passover haggadah tells us that we each must see ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt. While the words “as if” animate most text-based Jewish rituals, there is no “as if” in eating matzo any more than there is in eating hardtack. These rituals are not mere commemorations of the past. They are physical reenactments of it.

More fascinating still is the immediacy of the reenactment tradition. Far from being costume dramas of the distant past, historical reenactments in both Jewish culture and among Civil War devotees were already taking place during the lifetimes of people who had lived through the events being reenacted—people, that is, who ought not to have needed to be reminded of these events. In the Torah, the Israelites are commanded to reenact the night before the exodus from Egypt—not the joyous experience of the exodus itself, but rather the “night of watching” before the exodus, the terrifying experience of waiting for the angel of death to pass over their homes—beginning in the year after it occurred. Likewise, Civil War battle reenactments began with the Confederate veterans, who started congregating annually around the end of the 19th century to relive the most traumatic moments of their lives. And while Civil War reenactment may lack the spiritual complexity and purpose of Jewish ritual, it is nonetheless more than a hobby for many. It is, often, a way for participants to honor families, moved by a visceral connection to fathers and grandfathers for whom the reality behind the theater was that much closer to the lives they lived.

This parallel between Jewish ritual and Civil War reenactment reveals a deep, unexpected similarity in Jewish and Southern culture that distinguishes both from mainstream American public life. Jewish and Southern cultures are both post-traumatic civilizations—they are both built upon a sense of overwhelming obligation to the past.

For the South, the material devastation of a war that destroyed their economy and killed one out of every five white males was second only to the unbearable shame of losing their source of dignity and purpose—their belief in themselves as the true heirs to the American revolution, upholding the supreme American value of independence. For the Jews, the material loss of national sovereignty with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE was second only to the unbearable shame of losing their source of dignity and purpose—the Temple as the divine residence on earth. Both Jews and Southerners are people whose ancestors knew what it meant to lose. Unlike the bright official optimism of American life, both Jews and Southerners have cultivated cultures in which even children must be taught to live on the losing side of history and in which a sense of cultural dignity must be drawn from something other than triumph and success. While Jews and Southerners today no longer live their daily lives with their ancestors’ overwhelming sense of shame and defeat, the memory of that shameful loss and the community’s responses to it (manifested as an outsized sense of group pride, defensiveness, or both) have become part of each group’s identity. And therein lies the disturbing element of the reenactment traditions: the awareness, however hidden, that this former grandeur was lost because of one’s sins.

In Judaism, the sense that the community’s losses are deserved is built into the theological understanding of tragedy. The book of Lamentations unambiguously insists that the Temple’s destruction was due to the sins of the people. This idea, while problematic, is the animating force of much of Jewish civilization: the understanding that Jewish suffering is ultimately the people’s responsibility and therefore preventable. This ancient view pervades even secular Jewish life today on all points of the political spectrum, whether Jews claim that the community is attacked for being too kind to its enemies or for not being kind enough.

In the South, too, reenactments of the past owe their energy to an uncomfortable if unmentioned awareness of the theological understandings of the past. Northern Christian rhetoric at the time of the Civil War interpreted the total destruction of the South as divine punishment for slavery. While racism long outlasted the war, the upending of the world as white Southerners knew it demanded at least a tacit acceptance of the Northern view, even if it took 100 years to take root.

This does not mean that Jews and Southerners have reached the same conclusions about their losses. The unease that many Americans feel when seeing a Confederate flag comes from the fair suspicion that Southern devotion to the past, far from being a sophisticated replaying of trauma, is more akin to fantasy fulfillment—or a deliberate ignoring of the fact that the antebellum South was built on a foundation that can only be described as evil. There is no Southern equivalent of Lamentations, no public grieving for past sins. Yet if Southern culture does not blame itself enough, Jewish culture blames itself too much. And the only reliable eyewitnesses are ghosts.

In a ladies’ room at a Jewish community center in Richmond, Virginia, I encountered another ghost. I had just given a reading from my novel, which opens at a Southern seder during which all the food is served by slaves. In the restroom, a very elderly woman was waiting for me by the sinks. “I have something I need to say to you,” she said in a shaky drawl, and took my hand in hers.

“I grew up here in Richmond, and when I was a little girl, the elderly Jews I knew were people who lived through that time,” she said. “They had owned slaves. Maybe you’ll never find this written in a book, but I remember their faces at the seder when I was a child. And this is all I want to say to you: They were aware of the irony.”

Before I could ask her any more, she left, her 21-century perfume lingering behind her.

Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.