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We Called Him Rabbi Abraham

We Called Him Rabbi Abraham

Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History

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Gary Phillip Zola


E-book (Other formats: Hardcover)
59 illustrations


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About the Book

Over the course of American history, Jews have held many American leaders in high esteem, but they maintain a unique emotional bond with Abraham Lincoln. From the time of his presidency to the present day, American Jews have persistently viewed Lincoln as one of their own, casting him as a Jewish sojourner and, in certain respects, a Jewish role model. This pioneering compendium— The first volume of annotated documents to focus on the history of Lincoln’s image, influence, and reputation among American Jews— considers how Lincoln acquired his exceptional status and how, over the past century and a half, this fascinating relationship has evolved.

Organized into twelve chronological and thematic chapters, these little-known primary source documents—many never before published and some translated into English for the first time—consist of newspaper clippings, journal articles, letters, poems, and sermons, and provide insight into a wide variety of issues relating to Lincoln’s Jewish connection. Topics include Lincoln’s early encounters with Central European Jewish immigrants living in the Old Northwest; Lincoln’s Jewish political allies; his encounters with Jews and the Jewish community as President; Lincoln’s response to the Jewish chaplain controversy; General U. S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11 expelling “Jews, as a class” from the Military Department of Tennessee; the question of amending the U.S. Constitution to legislate the country’s so-called Christian national character; and Jewish eulogies after Lincoln’s assassination. Other chapters consider the crisis of conscience that arose when President Andrew Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning for Lincoln on the festival of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), a day when Jewish law enjoins Jews to rejoice and not to mourn; Lincoln’s Jewish detractors contrasted to his boosters; how American Jews have intentionally “Judaized” Lincoln ever since his death; the leading role that American Jews have played in in crafting Lincoln’s image and in preserving his memory for the American nation; American Jewish reflections on the question “What Would Lincoln Do?”; and how Lincoln, for America’s Jewish citizenry, became the avatar of America’s highest moral aspirations.

With thoughtful chapter introductions that provide readers with a context for the annotated documents that follow, this volume provides a fascinating chronicle of American Jewry’s unfolding historical encounter with the life and symbolic image of Abraham Lincoln, shedding light on how the cultural interchange between American ideals and Jewish traditions influences the dynamics of the American Jewish experience.

Finalist, 2014 National Jewish Book Award
Finalist, 2015 Ohioana Book Award


Gary Phillip Zola is the executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and a professor of the American Jewish experience at Hebrew Union College. He is the author of  The Americanization of the Jewish Prayer Book and the Liturgical Development of Congregation Ahawath Chesed, New York City; and Isaac Harby of Charleston: Jewish Reformer and Liberal; and he has edited several books, including Women Rabbis: Exploration & Celebration;and The Dynamics of American Jewish History: Jacob Rader Marcus’s Essays on American Jewry.


"A rich, scholarly, instructive reminder that there’s always more to learn about Honest Abe."—Kirkus Reviews

“It is a great tribute to Gary Zola’s passion, research skills, and narrative talent that after thousands of books on Abraham Lincoln, he has produced a stunningly original work that throws new light not only on our sixteenth president and his relationship with the Jewish community but also on the broader story of the American experience.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

“Everyone interested in Lincoln and the Civil War, students, scholars, and lovers of history alike, owe Gary Zola a debt of thanks for compiling this fascinating book. Through scores of rare original documents and his own revealing analysis, Zola explores Lincoln’s relations during his life with Jews and Judaism, and how Jews, like other Americans, later came to identify with Lincoln and to claim him, in spirit if not religious affiliation, as one of their own.”—Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

“This is the most important contribution to the literature on Abraham Lincoln and the Jews in more than half a century. Judiciously written, including rare primary sources and little-known photographs, this is a volume that anyone interested in Jews and the Civil War will want to own.”—Jonathan D. Sarna, author of When General Grant Expelled the Jews

"This book is fascinating."Jewish Book Council  

"This timely, well researched, and immensely thorough book will give readers valuable insight and understanding into the role that Lincoln played within the various Jewish communities both before and during his presidency."
Civil War Monitor

"Zola provides the fullest documentary record of the Lincoln-Jewish connections, and he offers an argument that warrants consideration, not only to understand American Jewry but also to apply to any "outsider" group wanting to remain true to its own identity and heritage while asserting a special relationship with the dominant cultural 'hero' of the larger society."
Library Journal