Lincoln & the Jews

One can discover, and learn from, the remarkable character of Abraham Lincoln in studying any aspect of his life. Thus even its narrow byways hold interest if navigated by a serious scholar. One such is Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the most prominent living scholar of American Judaism.

A week ago this past Sunday the Jewish Review of Books held its second annual event for supporters and subscribers. This year’s event included a lecture by Professor Sarna on Lincoln and the Jews, as the title of his most recent book (with Benjamin Shapell) has it. The JRB has now posted a video of the lecture (below) along with the accompanying presentation slides.

Professor Sarna speaks with a nasal New York accent that grates, but the substance of his lecture is superb. Sarna is a master teacher; Lincoln’s magnanimity and so much else shine through. If you are looking for a break from the miasma of the current political scene, as I was yesterday, this is what the doctor ordered.

The lecture is about 45 minutes long. It is followed by an excellent 20-minute question-and-answer period. The lecture begins a little slowly. After the first few minutes, however, I reveled in the details. Lincoln’s overturning of Grant’s General Order No. 11 (the subject of Sarna’s previous book) is not the least of it, but it is only a small part of the story.

For me, the lecture culminates in Sarna’s account of Lincoln’s relationship with his foot doctor, Issachar Zacharie. As was his custom, Dr. Zacharie asked Lincoln for a testimonial following his treatment. Lincoln duly complied. At about 30:00 of the video, Sarna drily explicates the text of Lincoln’s testimonial, dated September 20, 1862: “Dr Zacharie has, with great dexterity, taken some troublesome corns from my feet…” (slide 9). I found Sarna’s explication hilarious.

Listen, if you will, and learn.