We need to celebrate a Lincoln Chanukah this year. It’s not because of the new Steven Spielberg movie — that gives us something to do on Christmas Day. It’s because it’s the 150th anniversary of a little-known event in American history.
On Dec. 17, 1862, during the height of the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11 expelling “Jews as a class” from a war zone that included areas of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky within a 24-hour period. It was the first day of Chanukah.
Back then, Chanukah was not the major holiday it is now. But Grant’s order, if carried out, meant that entire families would be uprooted for the holiday and beyond, exiled from their communities.
Today, relaxing in our home with family on Chanukah and retelling the Maccabee story that takes place in a far-off time and land, it’s uncomfortable to imagine a different story about our freedom that hits much closer to home.
On that day, Grant was attempting to cut off the black market sale of Southern cotton, in which some Jewish and other traders were engaged.
As researched in his new book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” U.S. historian Jonathan D. Sarna tells us that Grant’s order was enforced in several towns in Union hands, including Paducah, Ky.; Holly Springs, Miss.; and Trenton, Tenn., among others.
“Only a few Jews were seriously affected by General Orders No. 11,” perhaps fewer than 100, according to Sarna, but news of the order and the resulting outrage was quickly spread by the Associated Press.
B’nai B’rith sent a petition to Washington calling upon President Lincoln to “annul” the order. Other Jewish leaders moved to organize delegations to meet with Lincoln. A Jewish merchant from Paducah, Cesar Kaskel, traveled to Washington on a mission to have the order overturned. Upon arrival he was able to arrange a meeting with the president.
According to an account of the meeting that Sarna says is often quoted but most likely embellished, Lincoln, using biblical imagery, asked Kaskel, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” In response, Kaskel asks for “Father Abraham’s” protection, to which Lincoln replies, “And this protection they shall have at once.”
The reality seems to have been that when Lincoln finally heard of Grant’s order, he ordered the general in chief of the Army to countermand it.
An account by the prominent Cincinnati Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who also had met with the president about the issue, provides Lincoln’s rationale: “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
This Chanukah, then, with Lincoln on our minds, how should we commemorate Lincoln’s action to rescind what Sarna cites as “the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in all American history”?
Jews going back to Lincoln’s presidency have found ways to connect before. After his assassination, expressing their sorrow, many rabbis delivered sermons that were collected in a book by Emanuel Hertz titled “Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of the Synagogue.” The basis for the Library of Congress’ Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana was donated by Alfred Stern, a Chicago businessman. There’s even a Lincoln Street in Jerusalem.
Continuing the connection is the new Spielberg film about Lincoln’s role in the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery.
Sarna’s book would be a good read for any night of the holiday, which many see as a struggle for freedom. For me it was a reminder that the dreidel’s message — “a great miracle happened here” — can apply to the U.S. as well.
“In the end, General Orders 11 greatly strengthened America’s Jewish community,” Sarna writes. “The successful campaign to overturn the order made Jews more confident.” This Chanukah, when we stand before our lit chanukiyot and recite, “These lights which we kindle recall the wondrous triumphs and the miraculous victories,” perhaps we can also recall the victories of Cesar Kaskel, Rabbi Wise and ultimately Abraham Lincoln, who protected our freedom here at home.