Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lincoln and Hirschfeld

Ever since it seemed to have gotten into financial trouble a few years ago, the New-York Historical Society has become one of the most creative, imaginative museums in terms of coming up with stimulating exhibits. Right now--for another two weeks--it is displaying an excellent show on Lincoln and the Jews. It also has put on a large exhibit of Al Hirschfeld drawings. Both are worth a visit.

The Lincoln show concentrates on how Lincoln maintained his relationships with several Jewish friends from Springfield through the Civil War. They provided him with both support and sometimes even intelligence: one travelled to New Orleans during the war and served as an agent for the President. But the exhibit also demonstrates Lincoln's efforts to secure rights and fair treatment for all minorities, exemplified by his pushing a bill through Congress to establish non-Christian chaplaincy in the Army.

And beyond the interesting ramifications of his relationships with individuals. the exhibit also plumbs his regular use of Old Testament sources in his writing and speeches. Apparently he drew from the O.T. three times more than from the New Testament. I've always found his use of language from Psalm 19 in the Second Inaugural--carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial--incredibly powerful. It comes right before the famed "With malice toward none..." conclusion: "Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

The exhibit also covers the infamous order of General Grant barring Jews from the military region of Kentucky in which he was then combatting the Confederates. Apparently this related to smuggling by cotton traders--it's interesting that those usually accused of this offense were Jews and Germans. The exhibit indicates that this was merely the most glaring display of anti-Semitism by Union generals, several of whom held strong anti-Semitic views. Lincoln, to his great credit, immediately countermanded Grant's order.

Perhaps most quixotic about this incident is that Grant, when President a few years later, was present and participated in the laying of the cornerstone of the original building of my congregation in Washington, Adas Israel. In fact, he was the only President to visit the congregation until President Obama came to speak there last Friday.

I've seen several Hirschfeld exhibits over the years but this one is by far the best. Not only does it trace his development as the preeminent Broadway caricaturist but it shows how his travels--especially a trip to Bali--influenced his style, exemplified by display of drawings reflecting the influence of shadow puppetry after his return. He also had a political side, and when one such drawing was rejected by the N.Y. Times (which was far more conservative in the earlier part of the 20th century) it was published in New Masses, a Communist outlet. This reminded me of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) who drew some great anti-Nazi propaganda drawings during World War II. 

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