Whenever I told someone that I was working on an exhibition called “Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War,” I typically got two responses. Both reflect the need for the exhibit (now on display at Yeshiva University Museum in New York), which presents the widely forgotten story of the full participation of Jews in the nation’s great existential crisis.
My sister’s reaction was typical: There were Jews in the Civil War? Who knew?
The second most common response was in some ways more interesting: The Jews who fought in the Civil War were against slavery, right? The discomfiting answer: not so much.
As Jewish historian Dale Rosengarten expresses it, quoting a Talmudic precept: “The law of the land is the law of the Jews.” From a modern perspective, it seems anomalous that a people whose history hinged on an epic escape from servitude would not have been deeply troubled by America’s “peculiar institution” — but few were.
Some Jews owned slaves, a few traded them, and the livelihoods of many, North and South, were inextricably bound to the slave system. Most southern Jews defended slavery, and some went further, advocating its expansion.