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The years 2011 through 2015 mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. During this turbulent and divisive time, what was it like being a member of the Jewish community at Passover? Certainly Jews celebrated the calendar's yearly religious festivals and holy days, but the celebration of Passover, when Jewish families and friends gather to read the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt dramatized with additional stories in the Haggadah, is somewhat like Shabbat. The joyous celebration occurs outside the synagogue, usually without the benefit of clergy. This holiday is unique. The centerpiece recapitulates a Biblical story via a ritual meal that proceeds in a prescribed order (Seder) with certain dishes given symbolic meanings to recall the events of that story. Every family constructs its own minor variations on the theme, but the retelling of the story is basically the same with certain Passover traditions differing in detail from community to community. Keeping these traditions and rituals were difficult for a religious soldier away from home and family and even more trying in the midst of a bloody war where one's enemy may be a fellow Jew fighting for what he believes is a righteous cause.
This was especially true during the American Civil War from April 1861 through May 1865. The largest Jewish community until the 1830's in the United States was in Charleston, South Carolina, with other large populations in New York and Philadelphia in the north. During the Civil War the total American Jewish population was about 150,000. Approximately 3,000 Jewish men fought on the Confederate side and 7,000 fought on the Union side with Jews playing leadership roles on both sides. Nine Jews were generals and twenty-one colonels. An aging Commodore Uriah Levy briefly served in the Union Navy during the very first months of the conflict before being retired. Judah Benjamin, a non-observant Jew, served as Secretary of State and acted as Secretary of War of the Confederacy. Several Jews in the banking industry helped provide financing for both sides during the Civil war.i
For Jewish soldiers who fought on both sides during these especially trying times, Passover was both emotional and perplexing. Slavery, perhaps the original sin of humanity, was most certainly the original sin in the founding of the United States. Therefore there was an obvious parallel between the story of Moses leading the enslaved ancient Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and the cause of the Abolitionists to free slaves on American soil, the high moral ground that required personal blood sacrifice.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the primary issue for the Northerners was fighting against secession and its implication for the future of the nation. The preservation of the Union surpassed all other considerations including slavery. The threat to nationalism and an abiding patriotism constituted the call to duty. In fact, congress stated that the war was not waged for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights of individual states or their "established" institutions (read slavery). The issue of freeing the slaves for most of the soldiers only gained in importance as the war ground on with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863.ii Southerners also saw the war as a patriotic cause, the defense of their families and homes. But even more, they fought for the preservation of the sovereign rights of the states; southern states that had welcomed them and allowed many to rise to positions of prominence. Believing that these states had the right to preserve their own "domestic institutions" (code word for slavery), their response was to aggressively defend a threat to their way of life.
Jewish soldiers in the Union Army were just as committed to Judaism as those who fought for the Confederacy and both the Northern and Southern Jewish soldiers understood that Passover was the observance of their ancestors historic escape from the bonds of slavery. Slavery in America, although a political issue at the time, did not seem to have much primacy as these adversaries performed the ritual celebration on two sides of the battle lines. That noted, providing for the ritual symbols of a Seder in the scattered war zones required ingenuity and a bit of adaptability. Published accounts from letters from a Union and a Confederate soldier during this time put our modern home-based celebrations into perspective.
A Confederate soldier named Isaac Levy, 46th Virginia Infantry, described his Passover in the portion of an 1864 letter to his sister Leonora.
. . . . [My brother] Zeke [Capt. Ezekiel J. Levy of the 46th VA] . . . purchased [Matzot] sufficient to last us for the week. . . . We are observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style. On the first day we had a fine vegetable soup. It was made of a bunch of vegetables which Zeke brought from Charleston containing new onions, parsley, carrots turnips and a young cauliflower also a pound and a half of fresh [kosher] beef, the latter article sells for four dollars per pound in Charleston. Zeke did not bring us any meat from home. He brought some of his own, smoked meat, which he is sharing with us. He says that he supposes that Pa forgot to deliver it to him.
Love to all,
Your affectionate Brother
Isaac J. Levy iii
From "Passover: A Reminiscence of the War" published in theJewish Messenger in April 1866, J.A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Union Volunteer Regiment described how he and twenty fellow Jewish soldiers observed Passover with matzo and Haggadahs shipped to them from Cincinnati to have their Seder in Fayette, West Virginia. An edited description of Joel's of the 1862 event is as follows:
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