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Film explores the role of Jews in Civil War

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Image from the film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray.” The National Center for Jewish Film

As America marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a new film highlights the role Jews played in the conflict that pitted North against South. The 86-minute film, “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” was produced by the National Center for Jewish Film of Brandeis University. It was screened locally on July 13, at Cong. Beth Tikvah/New Milford Jewish Center.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” was written by Jonathan Gruber, with an assist from Robert Marcus. It was directed by Gruber. It relies on interviews with Civil War historians such as Shalom Lamm and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and descendants of Jewish soldiers, as well as original letters and records stored in museums, archives, and private homes. Approximately 7,000 Jews fought for the Union; approximately 3,000 fought for the Confederacy.

The screening attracted a wide audience, including many from outside the congregation. Ken Morrow of Dumont said he had always been curious about Jewish soldiers serving in the Civil War. “This is a subject most people are not informed about.”

Bob Mark, rabbi of the New Milford congregation, noted in his opening remarks that most history textbooks ignore the contributions of Jews to the early history of the United States.

Although more than twice as many Jews fought for the North than the South, the film explores the myth that the North was friendlier to the Jews. Said one expert interviewed in the film, “The lines of division in the South were more racial than religious.”

The film discusses the career of Judah P. Benjamin, one of the first Jews to serve as a U.S. senator. The Louisiana native, known for his “incredible oratorical skills,” was a leader of the secessionist movement that created the Confederate States of America. He served as “Jefferson Davis’ right-hand man,” said one historian featured in the documentary, was appointed secretary of state among his other positions, and his face appeared on the Confederate two-dollar bill.

Also highlighted was Eugenia Levy Phillips, who was imprisoned for spying for the Confederacy.

Other notable Jews highlighted by the film include Alfred Mordecai, a major in the U.S. Army who refused to fight for either side during the war and resigned his position in protest of it; Rabbi Max Lillienthal, a vehement abolitionist; and Lt. Jacob Ballantine, who fired some of the first shots on Union soldiers at Fort Sumter.

The movie also discussed the Concordia Guard, reportedly an all-Jewish company of 96 men that was part of the 82nd Illinois Infantry.

Evidence of Jewish involvement in the war rests not only in the archives and the descendants of soldiers, but also on the field. A cemetery in Richmond holds the remains of dozens of Jewish soldiers who served in the Civil War. Additionally, a 19th-century Jewish activist, Simon Wolf, published a directory in 1895 containing the names of 7,000 Jews who fought on either side during the conflict. After being given a copy of the directory — “The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen” — Mark Twain publicly recanted a statement he made criticizing American Jews for refusing to fight in the Civil War.

The film also explores anti-Semitism in America at the time. One bright spot in the film was a discussion of President Lincoln’s strong support for the Jewish community. Lincoln’s voice in the film was more familiar to most people in the audience as belonging to Manhattan District Attorney Jack McCoy, the “Law & Order” character portrayed by the actor Sam Waterston.

Immediately after the screening, there was a brief discussion led by Rabbi Mark. He said he hoped that viewers had discovered “something you never knew before.”

“Pass this information on to your children,” he told the audience.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” was produced by Indigo Films, with funding from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation .

For more information about the film or to schedule a screening, call the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, (781) 736-8600, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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