Sunday, April 21, 2013

Belle Boyd: in camp and in prison - Edited with Introduction and notes by Curitis Carroll Davis

In reading about 19th century, Civil War era Jewry (Isaac Leeser and Judah P. Benjamin), the regional attitudes toward slavery etc, I noticed the mention of a notorious spy, Belle Boyd.  With my curiosity piqued, I found a book about the spy.

Her memoir of the war years is a fascinating read about Southern gentry, values and culture attempting to justify secession.  Ms. Boyd (who becomes Mrs. Hardinge) is an articulate voice of the Confederate demand for freedom to continue the values and culture of the South and a constant critic of Northern bullying and brutality.  According to her memoir, after the Union conquest of her hometown, she and her mother are accosted at their home by belligerent Union soldiers who verbally disrespecting them demand entry to be fed and quartered.  Ms. Boyd demands a minimum of courtesy which is not forthcoming and requests that the soldiers stand down or she will defend herself, her mother and her home!  The first belligerent soldier steps threateningly toward the threshold and Boyd pulls a small derringer from concealment and mortally wounds the soldier.  She is hauled into custody and the following investigation aquits her with the Union commanding officer commending Ms. Boyd's conduct saying that he would have done the same.  Later, she overhears conversations of Yankee positions that she gallantly, courageously conveys to the Headquarters of Confederate General 'Stonewall' Jackson.  That information is vital to Jackson's routing of Union forces and Belle Boyd is instantly famous in the Confederacy.

The most interesting element of this memoir for me was Ms. Boyd's attitude toward slavery.  Although it is clear that she believed in white supremacy (very common in the South- e.g. she does not believe a loyal black servant that warns her of the Union pursuit of her) she seemed to acknowledge that slavery would be short lived.  This assertion is similar to Judah P. Benjamin's attitude.  Perhaps, this may not be a true attitude but rather a politically necessary attitude because the Confederacy was lobbying for British recognition and support.  The British outlawed slavery in the 1830's.  Ms. Boyd's memoir was directed to a British audience.  In downplaying the institution of slavery and stressing State's rights and freedom from a central federal government, Boyd makes the case for supporting the Southern way of life.

From this memoir, one can deduce a well educated, and  outgoing personality who would not be abused and the demand for refined Southern gentleman values.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Isaac Leeser and the making of American Judaism by Lance J. Sussman

Lance J. Sussman's study of Isaac Leeser's life introduces Leeser as a visionary of American Jewry and ardent defender of "Shulchan Aruch" Orthodoxy against Reform.

The life of Reverend Isaac Leeser was really an adumbration of the present structure of American Judaism.  Leeser sensed correctly the needs of the emerging Jewish community of the USA.  He understood the need for Jewish education for children and adults, the need for a structure that would unify the greater Jewish community; he saw the need for a Jewish press and the need for a Jewish ministry of rabbis.  Leeser also experienced the common present-day tension between congregation and minister over expectations and salary negotiations.

Leeser was the first to preach in English on a regular basis on the Sabbath to the chagrin of his congregation.  His decision was solely to enable understanding and not to encourage a reform to synagogue practice. (At the same time in Europe, the permission of preaching in the vernacular was being discussed because of the concern that perhaps such a practice was assimilation in disguise)  Leeser was not a Talmudist; he concentrated on Biblical exegesis and philosophic ideas.  He started a school in his home that peaked at 16 students but failed since he could not convince his synagogue (Mikvah Israel of Philadelphia) of the necessity.  Eventually, Rebecca Gratz initiated the first Jewish Sunday School system with the support of Leeser.

In the first quarter of the 19th century there was a dearth of ordained rabbis (Leeser was not an ordained rabbi, but rather a Ba'al Tefillah, one conversant in leading the prayers and was engaged as a Hazzan).  The reverend help found the advanced school for the training of rabbis called the Maimonides school -unfortunately, it too was short lived due to lack of funding.  In order to educate (without the vehicle of schools) Leeser founded the first Jewish publication society and edited The Occidental: the Jewish Advocate, a periodical that commented on the current Jewish issues and events.

With the growth of more and more synagogues since immigration rose exponentially, Leeser saw the need to communicate and organize with other Jewish communities.  He saw the need of a present day Orthodox Union.  He translated the Torah and prayer book into English.  His prayer book could be seen  through the 1940's!

As a former congregational rabbi, I could relate to the Hazzan's grief when he failed to persuade his congregation of the need for a school or that he wanted to preach (without their permission) on a particular topic.  His salary negotiations, I could recognize as authentic.

The author points out that there is some discrepancy about labeling Leeser Orthodox.  Some say that he really was the progenitor of Conservative Judaism because he seemed to accept integrating into the larger society and seemed accepting of Zunz's scientific methods.  Leeser was clearly Orthodox, however, according Sussman because he never turned away from the authority of Jewish law and its Shulcan Aruch.  He constantly attempts at proving that the Rabbinic understanding (as in Rashi's Peshat) was undoubtedly correct.

Dayschool Education, a Rabbinate with its own school, a Press,  a federation or Union were issues that Isaac Leeser fought for and lost in his lifetime, however, all of those ideas comprise the make-up of present day American Jewry.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate by Eli N. Evans

This fascinating study of the 'brains of the Confederacy' puts Benjamin in a Jewish context.  A man who served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State and Attorney General of the Confederacy, Mr. Evans writes an excellent study about a person clearly uncomfortable about being Jewish; at one point he complains about his name: 'you might as well have written JEW across my forehead!'  Nonetheless, Benjamin is unable to shake the label or the pejoratives that are heaped upon him in an Anti-Jewish environment, yet remained loyal and trusted to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  One is introduced to a driven, industrious individual who perseveres against adversity and overcomes missteps and reversals. He is the epitome of discretion in absorbing the abuse that should have be lodged against Jefferson Davis.

Benjamin born in the West Indies when it was an English Colony moved to Charleston  SC as a child with his family.  There in Charleston, his family was clearly not Shabbos observant keeping their store open on Saturday to the chagrin of an observant Jewish community.  His father was an advocate for Reform in the Jewish community.  At 14 yrs, he attended two years at Yale but mysteriously dropped out under a cloud of moral turpitude, never disclosed.  Separating from his father, his family moved to New Orleans where he apprenticed with a lawyer and came to know the influential political apparatus of the city.  He married into a influential Creole Catholic family to a wife who notoriously lacked fidelity.  His acquaintance with the lead of the political machine enabled him to be elected Senator of Louisiana, the first acknowledged Jewish Senator of Congress (David Yulee technically may be considered the first Senator (from Florida) however, he never acknowledged his Judaism converting to Catholicism and denying his past.)

With a perpetual smile on his face he showed great competence at Law and was a standout public speaker. The issue of Slavery, he held as a necessary economic vehicle and not an immoral principal, however, with the understanding that the institution would eventually be abolished.  Benjamin resented the Federal Government's interfering with the States' rights.

During the Civil War, Benjamin served where he was asked: first as Secretary of War until the Generals resented his lack of military background, then Secretary of State and then Attorney General because despite the vitriol heaped on him, Jefferson Davis relied on him!  The Confederate Generals hated him and spewed antisemitic epitaphs conveniently not fully understanding that Benjamin was only the extension of the policies of the President!

He fled to England at the Civil War's end knowing that he would be tried for treason and put to death.  He successfully claimed British citizenship through his birthplace and successfully passed the bar and became a highly successful barrister making the grade of "Queen's Counsel".  In England, he never mentioned his role in the Civil War with the understanding that whatever he would say would be misinterpreted and that he would be maltreated in any event.

There is evidence that he read Jewish periodicals and maintained Jewish friends in Richmond, VA , however, he personally seemed to lack any affinity toward the Jewish tradition except that he conspicuously did not become an apostate like Yulee.  He was buried in a Catholic cemetery outside of Paris by his daughter.

This book is thoughtfully well written, an excellent introduction to the Civil War and the Jews of the South.