Commentary Magazine

Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

On April 19, 1865, Lewis Naphtali Dembitz—prominent lawyer, Jewish communal leader, and longtime activist in the Republican Party—ascended the pulpit of Beth Israel Synagogue on Green Street in Louisville, Kentucky, to participate in the congregation’s obsequies for Abraham Lincoln. He began his lament with these remarkable words: “You often called him, jocosely, Rabbi Abraham, as if he were one of our nation—of the seed of Israel; but, in truth, you might have called him ‘Abraham, the child of our father Abraham.’ For, indeed, of all the Israelites throughout the United States, there was none who more thoroughly fulfilled the ideal of what a true descendant of Abraham ought to be than Abraham Lincoln.”

Over the course of American history, Jews have held many American leaders in high esteem, but American Jewry’s emotional bond with Abraham Lincoln can be described only as sui generis. From the time of his presidency to the present day, American Jews have persistently believed that Lincoln was one of their own.

As Dembitz’s eulogy suggests, the small Jewish community in the United States at the time of Lincoln’s assassination (numbering perhaps 150,000) shared the nation’s grief and fully participated in the posthumous efforts to memorialize him—and, indeed, to conduct a political beatification of the Great Emancipator and victor of the Civil War. Then, as the decades passed following his death and waves of immigration transformed a tiny minority into one of the country’s largest ethnic groups, Jews began to use the beloved example of the nation’s martyred leader to give their foreign-born brethren a path to Americanization.

Twenty-seven days after the assassination, on May 11, 1865, a National Lincoln Monument Association was formally organized in Springfield, Illinois. American Jews participated actively in the fundraising efforts for the Lincoln Memorial Fund. One of Lincoln’s Jewish friends, the haberdasher Julius Hammerslough, of Springfield, Illinois, was charged with raising funds from the American Jewish community. On May 29, 1865, Hammerslough distributed a circular that he hoped would reach all of the “Hebrew Congregations, Corporations, Associations, Schools and Colleges in the United States.” In his communication to Jewish newspaper publishers like Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, of Cincinnati, Hammerslough asked the Jewish community to support what he called “the great and holy work” of the Lincoln Monument Association. It was proper for the Jewish community to contribute to this philanthropic endeavor not merely because it would be a fitting “tribute to the merits of our fallen Chief” but also because it would be seen as an act of “the most grateful remembrance.” He wanted American Jews to join with their fellow citizens and contribute a dollar to the cause.

Appeals for contributions were made in synagogues and in various Jewish organizations, and by the beginning of June 1865, the Jewish Messenger proudly advertised the fact that in New York nearly 100 Jews had already donated to the cause. In Cincinnati, Jews voted on this matter during a “general meeting of the Israelites of Cincinnati” and decided to establish a committee that would raise funds for the Lincoln monument from that city’s entire Jewish community.1

Like all other American citizens, Jews admired Lincoln and considered him a great American. Yet from the moment Lincoln was assassinated, American Jews regarded the martyred president as a national icon who, though not a Jew by birth, was genuinely imbued with Jewish values and had a “Jewish soul.” Through the present day, Jews have cherished the belief that Lincoln was truly a fellow spiritual sojourner whose moral instincts and spiritual impulses were closely aligned with those of the Jewish people.

Toward the end of the 19th century, as the 80th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth approached, rabbis, educators, and communal leaders began to deliver special homilies and oratorical lessons in commemoration of Lincoln’s birthday. “It is not without significance,” the editorial column of the Jewish Messenger observed, “that as the years fade the character of Abraham Lincoln shines forth with greater splendor and his name and record acquire a deeper, holier meaning…We Americans need the inspiration of Lincoln’s memory.”

For many Jewish orators, Lincoln’s life served as a particularly valuable model for Jewish living. On Sunday, February 12, 1888, the Washington lawyer Simon Wolf delivered the Lincoln Day Address in the nation’s capital. It is interesting to note that Wolf began his remarks by explaining why he had agreed to speak on Lincoln’s birthday: “I came here as one whose ancestors also were in bondage;…not in this, but in other countries, and to whom and for whom Abraham Lincoln achieved as much freedom and liberty as ever the laws of my ancestors have conferred religion and civilization upon mankind.” Lincoln’s birthday, Wolf declared, provided the nation with an annual opportunity to expose the American people to the life of a man who was an archetypical American. He was, Wolf said, “not only an American [but] in the highest ideal a typical American—the very incarnation of all that was just, true, and manly, not only for the Christian, but for the Jew; not only for the white man, but for the negro; not only for the American, but for all men, no matter from what part of the world they came.”

Wolf proceeded to regale his listeners with stories of his own personal encounters with Lincoln, all of which emphasized that Lincoln was the Jew’s friend and a man who harbored no bigotry. Wolf stressed the bond that Jews felt for Lincoln as well as the friendship that Lincoln extended to the Jews. Alluding to the social mores of the Gilded Age and, perhaps, the troubling rise in Judeophobia and Jewish social exclusion that typified that era, Wolf expressed his hope that Lincoln’s birthday would soon become a national day of education dedicated to teaching “our young men and young women, who perhaps may be falling by the wayside into materialistic views [that]…it is not birth, it is not wealth, that alone accomplishes great things in this country; but it is character and truth, nobility of soul and virtue of example that shall live for all time.”

A paradigmatic example of how Jewish leaders embraced Lincoln as an American and as a kindred spirit comes from an address that Dr. Herman Baar (1823–1904), superintendent of New York’s Hebrew Orphan Society, delivered to the children of the orphanage on the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday in 1897. “My children,” the headmaster began, “yesterday we celebrated the birthday of one of America’s best and greatest sons, Abraham Lincoln…No one deserves more—though he was not of our creed—to be mentioned in our Kaddish prayer today than Abraham Lincoln. Kaddish means holy, and Lincoln’s life was a life of holiness. He was a high-priest in the service of humanity; he was a soldier in the battle of human right and liberty; nay he was a champion for the cause of justice and heaven-born freedom!…[M]ay he ever inspire us with his lovable and noble heart, with his brave and gentle spirit, and with his kind and generous sentiments!”

Rabbis were increasingly invited to speak at citywide Lincoln Day festivities. They used these public occasions to emphasize Lincoln’s unswerving commitment to the biblical values of justice, liberty, and compassion. During the 1890s, the brilliant  orator Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch (1852–1923) composed several addresses on Lincoln, whom he described as “the greatest star in the constellation of men [who led the nation] into the glorious path of a larger freedom.” Rabbi David Philipson (1862–1949) preached a long sermon on Lincoln to his congregation in Cincinnati in 1898, comparing him to the prophet Amos. Truly great people, Philipson preached, are fighters for justice and righteousness. “Of such was Lincoln’s faith,” Philipson declared, “an immovable belief in the right.” In Philadelphia, Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf (1858–1923) crowned Lincoln “the Nation’s Saint, its greatest Master, its holiest Martyr, a people’s Messiah and Redeemer, the Talisman and Patron forever of every tyrannized people, of every down-trodden, God-given right.”

In the 1880s and 1890s, when thousands of East European Jewish immigrants poured onto the American continent, Lincoln served as an American beau ideal. In fact, Lincoln’s image and his saga even attracted the interest of Jews who had not yet set foot in the New World. In his autobiography, Ephraim Lisitzky (1885–1962), a highly regarded American Hebraist who spent most of his career working as a Jewish educator in New Orleans, recollected that he and other Jews held Lincoln in special reverence even before they immigrated: “I was fascinated by the emancipation of the slaves and even more so by the personality of Abraham Lincoln, the hero of the event. Lincoln’s Jewish name, Abraham, his bearded face with its Jewish expression of sorrow, made him look like a Jewish prophet of old whom Providence raised up for the Americans to free them from the shame of slavery.”

East European Jewish immigrants needed to become Americans, and Abraham Lincoln proved to be a catalyst in this endeavor. Time and again, Lincoln served as a metaphoric nexus that linked Americanism and Judaism together for the East European Jewish immigrant. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (1893–1963) crowned Lincoln “a saint of Democracy” and told his people that “Lincoln somehow reminds one of the ancient prophets of Israel. He seems to possess the same colossal height, the same sweep of spirit, and the same outreaching power that we are accustomed to associate with the ancient prophets.” Rabbi Samuel Sale (1854–1937) of St. Louis asserted that Lincoln’s religion was “the religion of humanity.” He was the “best and noblest” because he modeled his life on the teachings of the Hebrew prophet Micah, who compelled us “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk with [God] in humility.” For Jewish settlement houses and immigrant educational institutions, Lincoln’s life served as an enduring proof text that it was possible to be a great American and, concomitantly, a great Jew. Milwaukee’s settlement house for immigrant Jews was called the “Abraham Lincoln House.” The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Educational Alliance in New York engaged the renowned Yiddish orator Zvi Hirsch Masliansky (1856–1943) so that he could instruct hundreds of East European Jewish immigrants in their mother tongue about the life of Abraham Lincoln.

In a 1917 article titled “Lincoln and the Immigrant,” fiction writer Grace Humphrey (1882–1961) observed that “Lincoln makes the immigrants feel this is their country as well as the country of the native-born far more than any other American.” For Jewish children, she continued, “Lincoln was the epic rescuer of the oppressed, the man who freed the slaves.” Yet Lincoln also served as a vehicle for Americanization—he was an iconic American who bore the name of the biblical patriarch and first Jew. As a popular song from the era demonstrates, Lincoln made the Jewish name Abraham patriotic:

You say you’re ridiculed by all the boys in


But when they call you Abie don’t you mind.

There was a man named Abraham not many

years ago,

A better man you’ll never find.

We didn’t have the power to make you look

the same,

The best we could do was to give you his name.

One demonstration of Lincoln’s stature as an American Jewish icon may be seen in the custom of naming Jewish children after him. An indeterminate number of American Jews—those who emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe—eagerly embraced the 16th president’s legacy with the same honor they might have bestowed on a beloved and lamented parent or grandparent. When one of a set of Jewish triplets in northern California in 1867 was given the name Abraham Lincoln Danziger, it may have been the first documented example of a naming trend that would become a true American-Jewish tradition. Twenty years later, particularly for the massive wave of East European immigrants seeking to Americanize, “Abraham Lincoln” became a popular Jewish moniker that authenticated their children’s status as both Americans and Jews. Some prominent examples include Abraham Lincoln Fechheimer (1876–1954), a highly regarded Cincinnati architect; Abraham Lincoln Filene (1865–1957), from the famous department-store family; Abraham Lincoln Neiman (1875–1970), a founder of Neiman Marcus; Abraham Lincoln Erlanger (1859–1930), a theatrical manager; Abraham Lincoln Polonsky (1910–99), a distinguished American screenwriter; and Abraham Lincoln Marovitz (1905–2001), a well-known Chicago jurist and political activist. Some Lincoln namesakes—such as Abraham Lincoln Feinberg (1899–1986) and Abraham Lincoln Krohn (1893–1958)—became prominent American rabbis.

During the years leading up to the U.S. entry into World War I, Lincoln’s legacy was used as a narrative to explain the country’s involvement in this overseas conflict. In newspapers, magazines, congressional speeches, and sermons, Americans heard that President Woodrow Wilson was following Lincoln’s lead in prosecuting his foreign policy. Speaking from his pulpit in Carnegie Hall, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1879–1949) told his listeners that “Lincoln moved cautiously; so does Wilson. Lincoln took the long view; so does Wilson. Lincoln lifted the war to a higher level; so does Wilson. Lincoln won the war and ended slavery; Wilson will win the war and end war.”

By the end of World War I, Lincoln had become “part of the substance and continuity of the American soul.” Yet, for the American Jew, Lincoln’s name had become a summons to fulfill a distinctly double obligation. The Lincoln legacy called on Jews to dedicate themselves to the American nation while simultaneously remaining loyal to their Jewish heritage. Speaking to a large Jewish audience at Temple Beth-El in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a future governor, Frank G. Allen (1874–1950), told the state’s Jewish community that “a true Jew is a true American.” He urged them to emulate the life of Abraham Lincoln by rendering “distinguished service to this great democracy by helping instill the element of spirituality in our life, by showing we are truly our brother’s keepers, by practicing the ideals of the Hebrew prophets, and thereby [making] America a blessing for all
who are here.”

Within months of the date when Allen spoke to his Jewish audience outside of Boston, a New York businessman and Jewish communal leader named Henry M. Toch (1862–1933) was stressing another view about the role Lincoln should play for American Jewry. “The great prophet and emancipator in America,” Toch asserted, should serve as a source of inspiration that would compel Jews to be good Jews, “for good Jews make good citizens, good Americans.” After all, Toch declared, Abraham Lincoln was “like Abraham the founder of our faith.” Just as the biblical Abraham said, “Here I am,” when he was called to duty, so too did Lincoln say, “Hineni—Here I am,” when he was called to serve the American nation. American Jews, Toch exhorted, must follow Lincoln’s example and say, “Hineni—Here I am,” when they are called upon to strengthen and sustain Jewish life in America.

Lincoln had evolved into much more than an American icon for Jewish citizens. He became a unique role model who could teach Jews to be better Americans as he concomitantly inspired them to be better Jews.


An excerpt from “The Realization of the True Spirit of Judaism”

The Greatest American

On February 12, 1909, the centenary of Lincoln’s birth, more than 600 meetings and events were held in New York City. At one of them, Rabbi Bernard Revel (1885–1940), the future president of Yeshiva University, delivered a centennial oration in which he lavishly extolled Lincoln as a modern-day prophet who possessed the embodiment of the Jewish spirit.

Imbued with deep religious feeling and belief in the strength of truth and justice, armed with the Bible, “the Great Book,” as he believed, that “God has given to man where all the truth of the saviour of the world is communicated,” and having for his motto, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith as to the end dare to do our duty,” he relied upon the assistance of Divine Providence, and during all his life the Lord, our God, was with him as he was with Washington, the Moses of the Union. Through him God emancipated, not only the millions of slaves, but freed the nation as well. Like Joshua, Lincoln lived to see the cause of the nation triumph, to behold the Union victorious and peace and tranquility prevailing in the land. With pride he carried the flag of the people, whom he emancipated and the Union which he saved, until his day of martyrdom.

In the war which Lincoln proclaimed for “Union and Freedom,” the Jews were in the front ranks. For they, more than any other nation, had felt the scourge of the task-master and knew the heart of the oppressed. The history of the Jews is one long tragedy of personal sacrifice and heroism, and it is no wonder, therefore, that they were the first to re-echo the cry of abolition and respond to Lincoln’s call. During that dark and trying time they took an active part in arousing the sentiments of the people, and throughout the country, North and South, the earnestness of the Jewish character found expression in their devotion to the Union cause. The first official call to organize the abolition movement was signed by four Jews and one gentile, and Jewish editors, writers, rabbis, preachers, and men of affairs united in sowing the seeds of liberty. With their blood also the Jews of this country rushed to support the cause of the Union. At the outbreak of the Civil War the number of Jews in this country was less than 150,000. Out of these New York alone furnished 1,996 Jewish soldiers, among them being five brothers from a single family, as well as Colonel S. Levy and his three sons. Pennsylvania furnished 527 soldiers, and among their number were the three brothers Emanuel. Moreover, in Lincoln himself were fused all the essential elements of Judaism. If he can justly be called the first typical American he can more justly be said to represent the summation of all the noblest qualities of Judaism…

Lincoln combined the gentlest feeling of the heart with a rigid sense of duty and the perseverance necessary to fulfill that duty. He possessed spiritual insight, moral conviction, solid resolution, undying courage and faith and hope unfailing. He lived in the spirit. God was to him an ever-present, ever-poignant influence. He sympathized with men in the plane of humanity and regarded them in the spirit of philosophy. His fundamental democracy, which was to him a matter more of instinct than of reason, his belief in man’s dignity, worth, and moral nature gave him faith that on the whole and in the long run man will choose the good and reject the evil. He was convinced that every man should be his own master, should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

An ideal son of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the makers of the Constitution, he was imbued with a spirit of justice, without which freedom is of no avail and is destined to perish. Justice was indeed the breath of his life. Of all the American people, the most humane of any people on earth, Lincoln was the most humane. His great heart throbbed with sympathy for all the unfortunate and shared the pain of every suffering being.

These qualities, which are the brightest gems in the diadem of the greatest American, are they not of Jewish origin? If much of the best that is in the thought and tendencies of progressive life is due to Jewish inspiration, and if all the great social reformers of history have drawn their inspiration from the Jewish prophets, if the Bible is the vade mecum of the Pilgrim fathers from which they received their strength, their hopes and their sustenance, Lincoln was the realization of the true spirit of Judaism. Israel was the first democracy, its religion the first proclamation of freedom. In the very threshold of the Bible, the fatherhood of God, which results in the brotherhood of man, is proclaimed. The dignity of man is the basic conception of Israel’s religion.

Freedom is to Israel the most sacramental word. It embodied freedom and justice in its commonwealth. Freedom is the underlying motive of Israel’s prophecies, hopes, festivals, and prayers. Throughout the ages Israel’s message to the world was that of freedom and righteousness. It was Judaism that first proclaimed human brotherhood. “Love ye the stranger.” It was the Jewish prophet, who, in all the stirring grandeur of indignant rage, cried out, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us all?” These were the principles for which Lincoln lived and died.

And when the day will come and the American nation following its great prophet, Lincoln will become a model of justice, and through justice a pattern of peace to the world; when the American nation, led by the spirit of its great savior and preserver, will add its share to the realization of the day which the Jewish prophet’s inward vision foresaw thousands of years ago; when there will be universal peace growing out of universal justice and the American nation will show itself worthy of this, its greatest son, then the birthday of Lincoln will be the greatest holiday of a happy, progressive humanity and will represent a milestone in a new era of mankind’s history.


1 In 1874, the Lincoln Memorial in Springfield was dedicated at the Oak Ridge Cemetery.

About the Author

Gary Phillip Zola, a new contributor, is executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish archives and a professor at Hebrew Union College. This article is adapted from his new book, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History, recently published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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