A Jewish southern belle spy; the Jewish “brains of the Confederacy”; and Jewish soldiers on the North and the South; plus Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain were featured in a unique program October 24 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and opening DC’s Jewish literary festival.
The dramatic readings/”re-enactments” and historical narrative, “United by Faith, Divided by War: Jews and the Civil War”, launched the DC Jewish Community Center’s Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which continues through November 2.
The program’s connecting thread for the passages from letters, literature, diaries, and documents was Passover, which celebrates the Jews’ freedom from bondage in Egypt. Many key events of the Civil War happened around Passover, including shots fired on Fort Sumter just after Passover 1861, and Lincoln’s assassination during Passover 1865.
During Passover, the question is asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The festival’s opening night created a very different, compelling, and informative night.
It began with a reading of Mark Twain’s apology for his anti-Semitic rant in “Harper’s” Magazine. In his 1898 postscript, Twain wrote in “Harper’s” that he had been “ignorant that the Jew had a record as a soldier… In the Civil War (Jews were) represented in the armies and navies of both the North and the South by…the same percentage that was furnished by the Christian populations…”
Three thousand Jews fought for the Confederacy and 6,700 for the Union — a total of 9,700 Jewish soldiers out of the 150,000 Jews in the US in 1861.
Not only did they serve, but also on all levels: eight generals, 21 colonels… and 25 surgeons — that sparked a knowing laugh from the audience. Also, six Jews were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The highest official was Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jew to hold a Cabinet-level office in an American government, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed him Attorney General, and later Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. Benjamin, plagued by anti-Semitism, and scapegoated for the South’s loss, fled to England.
Benjamin figures in Dara Horn’s celebrated novel, “All Other Nights”, when the Confederate statesman joins an 1862 Seder in New Orleans. “Southern Hebrews saw Benjamin as the messenger of the Messiah, the herald who would proclaim liberty throughout the land to anyone who had ever felt that Jewish fear of power. Northern Hebrews saw him as the beginning of a descent into an American Jewish hell,” according to the reading from Horn’s book.
The audience heard about another 1862 Seder in a letter from the front by Union Army Private J. A. Joel. Fellow soldiers foraged for the traditional dinner’s ingredients, and found a particularly bitter herb which “excited our thirst to such a degree” that some of the soldiers forgot the traditional limit of four glasses of wine, and “drank up all the cider… “One thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, had to be carried to the camp,” Joel wrote.
Other dramatizations involved successfully lobbying President Lincoln to rescind General Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious Order #11, banishing “Jews as a class” within 24 hours from his Union territory of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. It remains the most blatant official episode of anti-Semitism in American history.
Emma Lazarus’ poem “Heroes” — no, not the one on the Statue of Liberty — summed up the evening, “So rich a page of thrilling histories.”
The program concluded, as Seders conclude, with “This year, may we all be free.”
The program was written and directed by Shirley Serotsky of the DC JCC’s Theater J, and researched (disclosure) by me.
It was featured also on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show October 24. Click here to read the transcript.
Here’s the full schedule for the festival — Editor’s Pick in “The Washington Post Going Out Guide”.
Acclaimed writers including Ursula Hegi, David Bezmozgis, and Lucette Lagnado will read from, discuss, and sign their widely praised new books. Here is just a sampling:
- October 25 Charles King, “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams”
The port city of Odessa has been a gathering place of geniuses, villains, artists and political insurgents of every nationality, religion, and social class. King traces the history and myths that have made the city one of the world’s most important multicultural centers for nearly three centuries. King is a professor of international affairs and government Georgetown University.
- October 27 Panel – Telling It Like It Is: Jews, Sports and Writing
Howard Cosell biographer John Bloom, author of “There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell”; former “New York Times” columnist and Emmy-winning TV host Robert Lipsyte, whose memoir is “An Accidental Sportswriter”; and moderator Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post’s “D.C. Sports Bog” discuss sports, culture, and modern media.
Steinberg just blogged this on his D.C. Sports Bog:
“Because I haven’t written about any touchy subjects at all in recent days, I wanted to mention that I’m moderating a panel called “Telling It Like It Is: Jews, Sports and Writing” Thursday evening at the DC JCC at 16th and Q.
“With any luck, I’ll just sit there and look pretty and dream about potential fantasy football trades, while the stars of the show — longtime New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte and Howard Cosell scholar John Bloom — discuss sports, culture and modern media.
Though it’s possible I’ll also rant and rave. You never know.”
He offers two free tix to the first person to identify whom Cosell was referring to — “I know [this person] inside out,” Cosell said. “He publicly admitted to me — and I don’t blame him one bit — that he is a racist.”
I myself am a sportsophobe, so I couldn’t possibly tell it like it is.
Suggestion: what about offering two more free tix to the person who can identify Cosell’s hairpiece maker.
- October 29 Ursula Hegi, “Children and Fire”
Hegi’s sequel to her best-selling “Stones from the River” tells of a brilliant, and unknowingly part Jewish schoolteacher in Germany, who becomes persuaded by Nazi propaganda to encourage her students to join the Hitler Youth movement.
- October 30 Panel – Glasnost’s Children
Novelists David Bezmozgis, a “New Yorker” Magazine “2010 top 20 fiction writers under the age of 40” and author of “The Free World”; Haley Tanner, author of “Vaclav & Lena”; and Nadia Kalman, author of “The Cosmopolitans” discuss the modern Russian immigrant experience with moderator Faye Moskowitz, Professor of English and Creative Writing at George Washington University. Moskowitz, whose book of essays “And the Bridge Is Love” is being republished by The Feminist Press on November 1, will give a reading at DC’s Politics and Prose Bookstoreon November 13 at 1 PM.
- October 31 Alicia Oltuski, “Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a
Way of Life“
Local author Alicia Oltuski’s “Precious Objects” combines the fascinating history of those gemstones with the author’s own family history in the intriguing diamond business. A diamond may be forever, but for Oltuski’s family, a diamond was survival. Her multi-faceted book also radiates adventure, mystery, comedy, science, and much more, just as she will during her appearance.
- November 1 Panel – Israel, Loose Nukes and the End of the World
Former network correspondent Marvin Kalb talks with Ron Rosenbaum, author of “How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III”, and Professor Avner Cohen, author of “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb”, about the history and risks of Israel’s nuclear bomb.
- November 2 Lucette Lagnado, “The Arrogant Years”
Multiple award-winning writer Lucette Lagnado, who wrote “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”, discusses her new follow-up memoir that focuses on her and her mother’s experiences in Cairo and America. The “New York Times” has said Lagndo writes “in crystalline yet melodious prose.”
As a schoolgirl in Brooklyn’s immigrant neighborhoods, she dreams of becoming the fearless Emma Peel of “The Avengers”, and later becomes an “avenging” reporter for prestigious newspapers. The title comes from her experience with cancer at age 16, which steals her “arrogant years”. She looks to the women of her childhood synagogue, to students at Vassar and Columbia in the 1970s, to her own mother and other women of their past in Cairo, and reflects on their stories as she struggles to make sense of her own choices.
Lagnado delivers the Gerald L. Bernstein Memorial Lecture, which closes the festival. A reception follows.
For more info and tickets: Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, www.washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/literary/jewish-literary-festival/. Most events begin at 7:30 PM, and some are free.Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street at Q Street, NW, Washington, DC, 202-777-3251, [email protected]