Friday, April 18, 2014

Passover in the Confederacy

For at least one night each spring during the Civil War, in places like Louisiana and South Carolina and Georgia and Virginia, Confederate Jews commemorated how God freed the children of Israel from slavery. They retold the story of when God is said to have sent down 10 plagues to help free the Hebrews from their bondage, the last of which was the slaying of all Egyptians’ firstborn children, and how the Jews marked their door posts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb so the Angel of Death would know to “pass over” them. Thus, they celebrated their liberation more than 3,000 years ago from slavery in ancient Egypt, and their exodus.

Some of those commemorating Passover may have gathered with their families around a dinner table partaking in a Seder — possibly served by slaves. Many others were on the battlefield, holding impromptu Seders or simply noting the special night for a moment in their minds as they focused on fighting for their home states — Southern slave states.

For many American Jews today, particularly those descended from immigrants coming through Northeast corridors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea that Confederate Jews fought on the side of slavery offends their entire worldview, rooted so deeply in social justice. Even the idea of there being so many Jews in the American South, decades before Ellis Island opened its gates, is a strange idea.

But just as Robert E. Lee, an Army officer for 32 years, sided with his home state of Virginia against the federal government, many Jews found a homeland in Dixie over the centuries and decided they could not take up arms against it. To them, after all they’d suffered and fled throughout the ages, the South was their new motherland, the land of milk and honey (and cotton), and it was worth fighting for. “This land has been good to all of us,” one Jewish-German Southerner wrote. “I shall fight to my last breath.”

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