Father Abraham – Spielberg and Kushner’s Jewish Lincoln

Did the two artists' experience as Jews in America inform them even subconsciously in portraying the 16th U.S. president?

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

BOSTON – Settling into movie-theater darkness to watch "Lincoln," the iconic president depicted on screen began to feel oddly familiar. First there was his habit of answering tough questions with stories and parables that felt positively Talmudic. Then came his fast talking, folksiness and appetite for legal debates.

This Lincoln was beginning to feel rather Jewish.

Then in one of the final scenes, Lincoln, a fan of biblical references, and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln take a carriage ride. Bumping along, the president confides he would like to travel once they retire, specifically to Jerusalem, “the city where David and Solomon walked.”

It turns out Mary Todd Lincoln did write that her husband had spoken of his desire to visit the Holy Land, but there was no mention of Jerusalem or the pair of Israelite kings.

That was a Tony Kushner addition.

Kushner, one of America’s greatest playwrights and a rather Jewishly identified Jew, wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg, a similarly identified member of the tribe with a penchant for making films about outsiders and rescue (see under "E.T.,""Saving Private Ryan"and "Schindler’s List").

Watching the credits roll prompted a question: Did their experience as Jews in America inform Kushner and Spielberg, even subconsciously, in their portrayal of Lincoln, who was sometimes referred to by Jews of his day as Father Abraham?

The film, up for 12 nominations at the Oscars Sunday night, maintains a tight focus on the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, which Lincoln battled to pass despite withering opposition from every direction, including his own cabinet.

“Tony and I spent time talking about Lincoln as a Moses figure,” said Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar who served as a script consultant on the film. He wrote"Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America" as a companion book for the movie, targeting young readers. Among his 40 or so books on Lincoln is a volume entitled "Lincoln and the Jews."

“People know he died on Easter weekend, and Easter services that weekend made him a martyr," Holzer said. "But it was also Passover and Shabbat, and religious services in Philadelphia and Boston cemented him as a Moses figure who led his people to the Promised Land but did not live to see the Promised Land. So he became a huge heroic figure to the Jews as well.”

As for the haimish feel to this Lincoln, “that may be Tony," Holzer said. "Tony is very haimish.”

Like Talmud scholars do

Keeping with that theme, J. Hoberman, Tablet's film critic, wrote, “As imagined by Spielberg and Kushner, Lincoln’s Lincoln is the ultimate mensch. He is a skilled natural psychologist, an interpreter of dreams, and a man blessed with an extraordinarily clever and subtle legal mind.”

Ari Karpel, an entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles who blogs at themodernmensch.com, was struck by what he described as an especially thoughtful portrayal of Lincoln, “one in which there is resonance with many Jewish themes and ways of being in the world.”

Among them he said is Lincoln’s commitment to what amounts to tikkun olam, Hebrew for repairing the world.

Speaking about Lincoln’s commitment to pushing through the 13th Amendment, Karpel observed, “He could have taken the easy way out , to let the war resolve and end slavery, but he knew he had to codify that into the laws of the nation, which is a very Jewish way of approaching things.”

As Karpel notes, dissecting one moment is something Talmud scholars do, but it’s also a device Kushner uses to spin grand American narratives: “He is a master at that.”

Adam Mendelsohn, a historian specializing in American Jewish history and the Jews of the South at the College of Charleston, said unpacking depictions is tricky business.

“How much is it the real Lincoln and how much is it a Jewish director and a Jewish writer imagining him in a particularly Jewish way?” he said.

But the film’s focus on a battle that is both highly legalistic and concerned with ensuring the rights of a minority is perhaps influenced by a Jewish lens, Mendelsohn suggested.

“A Jewish dimension to the film is the way it might say something about how American Jews deal with African-American subjects,” he said, noting the sympathies and support for the civil rights movement by American Jews who viewed the African-American struggle as connected to their own efforts to secure equal footing in America.

Kushner spent his childhood as one of the few Jews in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He would have felt even more like a minority as a gay Jew growing up in the South. He wrote the book and lyrics for the 1999 musical mixing Motown, spirituals and klezmer influences called "Caroline, or Change," about a Jewish family’s relationship with their black maid.

“There is a long history of Jews in Hollywood depicting African Americans in a way that advanced their own agenda of advancing rights for minorities,” said Mendelsohn. “And the encounter maybe says something about how American Jews and African Americans have Lincoln in common as their hero.”

So much biblical imagery

In the decades following Lincoln’s assassination there were Jewish-community pageants celebrating his life and extolling his famous speeches.

Across the Jewish political spectrum his inclusive words were adopted by competing movements. The Zionists seized on his language as vindication of a liberation movement, of rights and a sense of homeland; for the Socialists there was his embrace of equality.

“He was a secular saint and one which people tied themselves to in order to present oneself as super American,” said Mendelsohn.

Then there was the whole discussion among Jews after Lincoln died over why he used so much biblical imagery. Some proffered he had a special relationship with the Jews or even had some Jewish ancestry – both almost certainly bogus claims, says Mendelsohn.

In Lincoln’s day the Bible was omnipresent in American culture and, using biblical language as he often did – for example, his first inaugural speech describing “a house divided" – would have resonated with his audience.

While researching the film, both Spielberg and Kushner were likely to have learned about the encounter between Lincoln and the Jewish community that contributed most to cementing the Jewish mythologizing of Lincoln.

In December 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses Grant ordered the Jews to be expelled from the territory under his command – from southern Illinois to Mississippi. He accused them of smuggling southern cotton north.

At great speed a Jewish delegation went to Washington to protest and Lincoln revoked the order.

“It was the first example of the Jewish lobby on a small scale," said Holzer. "This was not AIPAC. But it was an effort by the Jewish community not to just hide and assimilate. It marked a very important moment when they felt they had a president they could go to.”

A century and a half later, Spielberg and Kushner have had their own encounter with Lincoln.

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln.Credit: Courtesy
Writer Tony Kushner accepts the award for Best Original Screenplay for 'Lincoln' at the 2013 Critics' Choice Awards.Credit: Reuters

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