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Jewish soldiers celebrate Passover in camp

by Laurinda Joenks | March 24, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.

Among those fighting the Civil War -- for both the North and the South -- were Jews, said Cynthia Douthit, director of the Jewish-Christian Studies Center in Springdale. She spoke Monday night in a "Learn About Local History" session at the Elm Springs heritage center.

"Jews were very much accepted in the South," Douthit said.

"They were allowed to keep their freedom of religion with worship on the Sabbath, celebration of the festivals and their lifestyle. They were welcomed into the homes of their Gentile friends and would often have times of food and fellowship. From what I have read, they were welcomed with open arms, no questions. Many people in the South attended church, and knew their Bible as to the Jewish people being God's Chosen people, so accepting them was easy to do from a Biblical point of view."

About 10,000 Jews were soldiers in the Civil War -- 7,000 for the Union and 3,000 Confederates. "They were mechanics and farmers and bankers," Douthit said.

Jews understand they have been given a divine directive in the Torah to celebrate seven Jewish festivals each year, Douthit said. One of these is Passover, which Jews around the world will mark next month.

"The Jewish people viewed Passover as a biblical mandate to keep, and if they did not, it would be going against God and His command," Douthit said. "Keeping Passover is a way to show that they were dedicated and sincere in their beliefs and obedience to God."

Douthit pointed out that in battle, on the march, soldiers probably were not even sure on exactly what day Passover began. Add to that the Jewish and Gregorian calendars were different.

When Union soldier Myer Levy of Philadelphia passed through an occupied Virginia town, he saw a boy on a porch eating matzah and asked for some. "The boy ran into the house yelling, 'Mother, there's a damn Yankee Jew outside!' The boy's mother came out and asked Levy to return that evening for a Passover meal," said Bertram Korn, in American Jewry and the Civil War.

Jewish soldiers had to make do, Dothit continued. "Matzah was selling for 6 cents a pound in New York City, but probably $2 to $4 in the South. The soldiers would have to forage to find the elements for the Seder, as well as the ingredients for the Passover meal. There are accounts of some soldiers who kept kosher during the whole of their service time during the war. Preparing the seder was a exercise in itself. Where did you get a whole lamb? Where did one come up with the horseradish to make the bitter herbs?"

(Bitter herbs and lamb are traditional foods for a Passover Seder plate, symbolic of the Jews' escape from slavery in Israel, Douthit explained.)

Some letters record soldiers asking in letters for their families to send them Passover supplies. Some soldiers were fighting locally, so their families could supply them, Douthit said, but many others weren't.

The soldiers couldn't come up with the charoset, a reminder of the mortar and bricks their ancestors made while in Egypt, Dothit continued. So the young Jewish soldiers found a brick and set it on the table for all to look at as a reminder, instead of having the fruit and nut mixture to eat. She noted that one group found a log instead of a shank bone and just set it on the table as a representation.

"And most soldiers didn't carry a Haggadah, a booklet that tells the order of the Passover Seder," she continued. There is a letter where a Union soldier writes home and tells how happy the soldiers were to discover two copies of the Haggdah in the barrel of matzah that they had received, as well as prayer books.

"Most were young men, and might not have been paying attention to what their grandfathers were saying and what was written in the Haggadah. (A family's patriarch leads the Passover tradition.) They were having to depend on each other to remind them what comes next."

Douthit shared the words of 19-year-old Pvt. Joseph Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who served with 20 other Jewish soldiers under Rutherford B. Hayes.

"There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God of Israel our prayers and sacrifice," Hayes wrote in a letter home. "I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our sides ready for an attack, faithful to our God and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt."

"This Union soldier writes home to tell how the holiday was kept," Douthit said. "Several young men in that unit died later in battle. But they were determined to keep the institution of home even in war."

NAN Our Town on 03/24/2016

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