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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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Big-screen reinvention of Exodus is empty as the parted Red Sea

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — fails to meet expectations.

Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses (Christian Bale) saves the life of his adoptive brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) during a battle with a Hittite army, recalling an earlier prophecy that the skeptic Moses laughed off. He learns of his lineage from Nun (Sir Ben Kingsley), which leads to his exile by the now-Pharaoh Ramses II. During this nine-year exile, Moses has a child with Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and climbs a forbidden mountain — only to hit his head, see a burning bush, and get a request from a child messenger of God.


‘Sheriff of Mars’ tells story of Daniel Antopolsky

It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers. High on heroin. Rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt.

But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the grandson of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the “Sheriff of Mars” fled the aggressive U.S. music scene for a tranquil life on a farm in Bordeaux, France.

Over the last 40 years, Antopolsky has written nearly 500 songs. Now, for the first time ever, his music is being shared with the world through a new documentary and music album, the latter produced in conjunction with some of country music’s finest players and by award-winning producer Gary Gold.


‘The Jews are coming’

Masada. 73 CE. A young man in brown robes makes his way through stone enclosures, around strewn bodies of his comrades, up a few steps, and into what appears to be an office, at the entrance to which the sign has the modern Hebrew acronym for Military Psychiatry Officer.

“Why don’t you tell me why you are here,” suggests the officer.

“Well,” says the young man, “you see… the reason I’m here, is, ummm… I don’t want to kill myself.”

“That is entirely sane,” the officer assures him calmly. “No one wants to kill themselves.”

“Oh. Good.”



Meet Stefan Zweig

Jewish novelist who inspired ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is having a comeback

Wes Anderson’s whimsical film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was nominated for nine Academy Awards last week, just days after winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical.

Named one of the best films of the year by several top critics, it could earn Anderson, a director whose cult following has steadily grown over the past decade, his first Oscar.

It also is likely to raise the profile of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish novelist who, Anderson has said, inspired the film’s quirky Eastern European setting and several of its characters.

Indeed, a new book about him, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” just won the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Award for Best Jewish Biography.


Museum program features director screening/discussing Jewish pilots film


When is a Jewish movie a Jewish movie?

I don’t quite get it.

The New York Jewish Film Festival opened on Wednesday, and it seems to me that about one third of the 47 films screened there are not Jewish movies. That doesn’t make much sense to me. When I go to see films at a Jewish film festival, I expect to see films that are in some way Jewish.

For me, a Jewish film is a movie about anything related to the Jewish experience. The 24th New York Jewish Film Festival is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum. When I questioned Aviva Weintraub, who is the museum’s associate curator and the director of the festival, about the selection committee’s choices, she said, “Our goal is for the program as a whole to add up to more than the sum of the individual films. Each season, we strive to deepen the definition from the most obvious, evidently Jewish characters, Israel, and/or historical Jewish events to a broader perspective.”

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