In 1863, Isaac Mayer Wise—American’s foremost rabbi at the time—led a delegation of Jewish leaders to the White House where they met with President Lincoln. According to Wise’s account, the president stated that “he believed himself to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh” and “supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage.” Wise further claimed that Lincoln “preserved numerous features of the Hebrew race, both in countenance and character.” Stuart Schoffman writes:
[T]he learned consensus stands [that] Lincoln spoke to Wise metaphorically, and the Jewish roots are merely a tantalizing rumor, like Ulysses S. Grant keeping kosher. . . . And yet, if Isaac Mayer Wise, grand panjandrum of American Reform Judaism and founder of Hebrew Union College, said Lincoln looked Jewish, and took seriously his claim of Hebrew ancestry, why on earth haven’t dogged scholars picked up the bone of our bone and run with it? . . .
In this case, there may indeed be more to it. Educated speculation has it that Lincoln was of Melungeon stock, an ethnic mélange possibly derived in part from Muslims and Sephardi Jews who landed with Spanish explorers in the American southeast in the 16th century and migrated to Appalachia. According to Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University and the author of the 2005 monograph Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America, not only Lincoln but also Daniel Boone was of Judeo-Melungeon lineage. “Anyone who looks at photographs of Abraham Lincoln,” she wrote, “is no doubt struck by his distinctively Semitic features.”
Raised as a Protestant in Tennessee, Hirschman converted to Judaism after discovering her own Melungeon roots. Her intriguing book, alas, makes no mention of Lincoln’s remark to Isaac Mayer Wise in 1863.