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Historian sheds new light on a famous story about Abraham Lincoln and a New York cantor

(New York Jewish Week) — A new book untangles one of the best known incidents involving Jews in the American Civil War — and suggests the real version is both more complicated and more interesting than the legend.

In “Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army,” historian Adam D. Mendelsohn recalls the story of Arnold Fischel, the Dutch-born hazan, or cantor, at New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation, and how he persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to support the idea of allowing Jews to serve as military chaplains. 

That much is true, as Mendelsohn explained in an online talk Tuesday sponsored by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Under a congressional statute, only Christian ministers could be chaplains, so in December 1861 Fischel traveled to Washington to argue his case directly to the president. Lincoln agreed to see Fischel, and a few days later wrote the cantor saying he would “try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”

On July 17, 1862, Lincoln signed the law permitting Jews to serve as chaplains.

And yet, in research for his new book — which relied in large part on a vast database of Civil War soldiers known as the Shapell Roster — other parts of the story don’t hold together, Mendelsohn explained. According to a frequently retold version of the story, Fischel had been nominated to replace a Jewish layman named Michael Allen who had been forced out as chaplain of the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, allegedly at the request of a visiting delegation from the YMCA. Horace Greeley’s crusading New-York Tribune and other papers picked up the story and made a hero of the Jewish officer who had mustered the cavalry, Colonel Max Friedman, supposedly for “leading the charge against the unjust law.”

In fact, writes Mendelsohn, Allen was not kicked out as chaplain but probably resigned because he wasn’t enjoying his army service far from home. As for the colonel, “There is no evidence of a coordinated campaign by Friedman and his fellow Jews to elect Arnold Fischel in place of Allen.” Instead, Fischel’s contract with Shearith Israel was about to expire, and he sought the cavalry job because was in “urgent need” of the army’s relatively generous pay for chaplains. 

Friedman, meanwhile, vigorously denied press reports that his 700-man cavalry, which had fewer than 20 Jewish soldiers, needed a Jewish chaplain. Mendelsohn found evidence that Friedman shrank from the attention, in part because he was a bit of a scammer: Like many officers in his day, he charged the government for no-show recruits, sold commissions to officers and got a cut of the profits from government contractors, known as “sutlers.” Even Michael Allen — who sold liquor — might have been in on the grift. 

“It is a much more tangled tale than originally thought, but the outcome is the same,” Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said Tuesday. “In fact, the Jewish community does lobby Lincoln to change the law, and there is a considerable effort to do so.”

Mendelsohn said the story of Fischel and Lincoln underscores the need to dig more deeply into American Jewish history, and how the Shapell Roster helped him do just that. His book about the 1,700 Jewish soldiers who served in the Union Army is, he writes, “a story of ordinary men in extraordinary times, as fine and as flawed as their fellow soldiers, and Jewish too.” 

As for Fischel, he served for a time as sort of a chaplain-at-large to the Army of the Potomac, but never got the lucrative appointment he sought. Lincoln appeared skeptical of his request that a Jewish clergyman was needed as a hospital chaplain in Washington, where Jews were but a tiny fraction of the dead and wounded. Denied that commission, a disappointed Fischel returned to Europe.


The post Historian sheds new light on a famous story about Abraham Lincoln and a New York cantor appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

Dr. NATHAN WISEMAN

Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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A number of speakers addressed the crowd of 800, including Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia Congregation; Members of Parliament Ben Carr & Marty Morantz; Yolanda Papini-Pollock of Winnipeg Friends of Israel; Paula McPherson, former Brock Corydon teacher; and Gustavo Zentner, President of the Jewish Federation.

Ben Carr

Click here to watch Ben Carr’s remarks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crfREGNRKfg

Marty Morantz

Click here to watch a video of Marty Morantz’s remarks: https://studio.youtube.com/video/zHzC-iaqivg/ed

Gustavo Zentner

Click here to watch a video of Gustavo Zentner’s remarks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3M_cCYuLgs

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