Monday, June 10, 2013

The Confederate Jews of Dixie

Touro Synagogue, New Orleans, Louisiana

From the New York Times Book Review, "Look Away, Already: Among those fighting for the Confederacy were 2,000 members of the Jewish community." by Roy Hoffman, on 28 January 2001 -- Comprehensive and readerly, ''The Jewish Confederates'' offers an informative look at what Robert N. Rosen estimates as the 2,000 Jews -- out of a Confederate force of more than a million -- who went into battle on behalf of Dixie. In its locket-sized portraits of hundreds of soldiers, the book valuably reminds us that as some Johnny Rebs lay dying on blood-soaked fields, they might have pictured, in anguished yearning for home, loved ones gathered not around the Christmas goose but the Passover lamb.

The author of two histories of his hometown, Charleston, S.C., Rosen has done yeoman's work in gathering together the stories of scores of Confederate loyalists, not just oft-portrayed public figures like Florida's David Yulee and Louisiana's Judah P. Benjamin but also those who might otherwise be remembered only by their families or in local, synagogue histories.

The Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen

Lt. Joshua Lazarus Moses, for example, a Citadel graduate and one of five brothers to serve the Confederacy, has a poignant story. He was killed in action at Fort Blakely, outside Mobile, Ala., on April 9, 1865 -- the same day Lee surrendered at Appomattox. In 1868 his mother wrote a poem to her ''brave'' son, expressing her pride ''that thus my gallant son should die.'' Benedict Oppenheimer, deaf from childhood scarlet fever, joined up in Tennessee. ''Oppenheimer's great-niece recalled that he used to tell her in sign language or with pencil and paper some of his many experiences,'' Rosen writes. ''He told of how the company always picked him to fire the cannon because he was deaf anyway and it did not hurt his ears.''

Rebel patriots like these, Rosen shows, were the norm, with the South's 25,000 Jews at the time -- especially in cities like Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond with an ''acculturated and assimilated Jewish elite'' -- willing to scrap tooth and nail against Yankee invaders. As Rabbi James Gutheim of New Orleans, at a dedication ceremony for a Montgomery, Ala., synagogue, prayed for his ''beloved country, the Confederate States of America'' in 1862: ''Behold, O God, and judge between us and our enemies, who have forced upon us this unholy and unnatural war -- who hurl against us their poisoned arrows steeped in ambition and revenge.''

Judah Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate Secretary of State, was featured on the Confederate two-dollar bill.

''Modern-day Jews are very uncomfortable with the notion that antebellum Southern Jews owned slaves and that a few were in the business of slave trading,'' Rosen writes. He does not shrink from depicting some Southern Jews as slaveholders, but neither does he explore the ramifications of that fact. Rather than mounting a sustained discussion of Jews and slavery, Rosen plays out his argument piecemeal, at times leaving the reader with contradictory notions. Splitting hairs, he assures us in the preface that ''few Jewish Confederate soldiers owned slaves,'' but he later states: ''In 1840 three-fourths of all heads of families in Charleston owned at least one slave, and the incidence of slaveholding among Jews likely paralleled that of their neighbors. . . . Richmond's rabbis supported slavery.''

Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is a historic synagogue located at 90 Hasell Street in Charleston, South Carolina. The synagogue was founded in the 1740s and is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States.

Rosen also sends incongruous messages as to how Jews were perceived by the Christian South. Early on, he writes, ''The Old South was remarkably free of prejudice against Jews,'' but later he explores how anti-Jewish attitudes flared up as the war unfolded: ''When the Civil War began, many Southerners had never met a Jew.''

However, this is not a book about the home front; it is a book about the battlefield. Sometimes inconsistent as social analysis, ''The Jewish Confederates'' works best as a kind of living diorama. On its revolving picturescape turn the romantic and callow youths, rifles at their sides, Stars of David around their necks, and the, yes, inspiring Confederate battle flag fluttering overhead. (source: The New York Times)


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