First, hello! My name is Laura Newman Eckstein (HC ’16), and I am a Hurford Humanities Fellow researching Southern Jews pre-1865 for my senior religion thesis. I am in Cincinnati this summer at the American Jewish Archives, which has one of the best collections of information on American Jewry in the world, particularly Southern Jewry.
As we speak I am combing through the file of a Jewish Confederate soldier: his medical passes, his letters home, his vouchers, and his military correspondence.
I come to this research through an interest in my own family. I have around six Jewish Confederate ancestors. I often wonder if they knew for what they were fighting. My concepts of the Confederate position is veiled in my own notions of history, looking back through the book of memory and time. While today the Confederate army is associated with racism and slavery, for most Jewish Confederates it had nothing to do with slavery in particular. I am finding that very few Jews, pre-Civil War, were plantation owners; they were mostly merchants. Yet they did have a vested interest in the class structure that pervaded the South before the Civil War. Amid planters and non-planters, whites and blacks, slaves and free people, the Jews were able to flourish and seemingly assimilate into their communities in a way they had been unable to do in Europe and the Caribbean. With newfound and welcome prosperity and a sense acceptance, the need to prove themselves, to fight for and demonstrate their position within the larger Southern society, was an obvious reason for their participation in Confederate Army.
Reflecting this sentiment twenty years before the War began, Gustavus Posznanski, the leader of the oldest Synagogue in the South, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Caronlina, in his speech at the dedication of the new synagogue building in 1841 said: ‘“This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our fathers defended with their lives that temple and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city, and this land”’(Rosen, 1-2 ).
However, it seems ironic that a people who have historically been the oppressed were the ones on the side of oppression. Scholars note that after the Civil War there were many more anti-Semitic incidents in the Southern United States. Perhaps the Southern Jews were not as assimilated as they thought, but served disproportionately on the Confederate side due to their insecurity about acceptance and assimilation. With turmoil and with the abolition of slavery, with the destruction of property and with the losses of war, Jews once again became targets.
The Jews of the South, particularly the Jewish Confederates, seem part of a distant and foreign past. Yet they tell the story of a group trying to survive in an unfriendly world, disregarding the intolerance of a society in order to feel accepted. I wonder whether am I so different from my Confederate ancestors. No, there isn’t slavery in the 1850′s sense, but there are other injustices pervading our world. I feel that I am an assimilated Jewish-American. Am I disregarding injustice in order to feel societal acceptance?
- Rosen, R. (2000). Prologue. In The Jewish Confederates. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.