How Passover Transformed the American Jewish Consciousness

April 6, 2020 | Darcy Fryer
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In 1865, Passover began on the evening of April 10, the day after the Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox courthouse. The conjunction of the military defeat of slavery with the Jewish holiday celebrating freedom from slavery struck many U.S. Jews as significant that year. Darcy Fryer sees in their reactions an emerging new appreciation of the connection between Judaism and the American project of liberty:

The Civil War years . . . brought startling new measures of acceptance, including the induction of the first four Jewish military chaplains in American history: two hospital chaplains and two regimental chaplains elected to serve mixed Jewish and Christian units, where they were valued for their sensitivity to immigrant soldiers’ needs and their ability to preach in German. Perhaps a sense of being more fully incorporated into American society paved the way for American Jews to recognize the connection embodied in the African-American spiritual “Go Down, Moses”—a song that was published and popularized during the war, after being used as a rallying cry by black soldiers.

Rabbi Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati, [a leading Reform clergyman], asked some piercing questions in a sermon he preached that year on the Sabbath that fell during the holidays: “We have in four years advanced intellectually, morally, and politically more than other nations will in centuries to come. Four years ago, how many of us were abolitionists? How many of us dreamt of the possibility that this sacred soil of liberty should be cleansed from the scourge of slavery? How many of us had moral courage enough to think that this great stain could be or should be removed from the brilliant escutcheon of the American people?”

Lilienthal toasted the intellectual and moral growth of his community and of the whole American people—including President Abraham Lincoln, who had not argued for the outright abolition of slavery at the beginning of the Civil War, and whom Lilienthal had nonetheless deemed excessively radical in 1861. But a world had turned, and there the country was in 1865, dizzy with moral transformation.

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