The book Chase’s Calendar of Events is self-billed as “the most comprehensive and authoritative reference available on special events, holidays, federal and state observances” and more. Admittedly, it’s not my “go to” book on a lazy Sunday afternoon - nor is it likely to be selected as an Oprah favorite for your book-of-the-month club. But when you’re producing a television show you owe it to your audience to uncover story ideas using any method possible - provided it’s legal, of course. And for a book that lists everything from New Year’s Eve to National Hot Dog Day (make mine Hebrew National, please), “Chase” is the place to go.
That’s how I learned that today, April 25, is Confederate Memorial Day - granted it’s not celebrated in every state of the union, but for Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi it’s a pretty big deal. There are typical memorial day activities: flags laid at tombstones, speeches given…you know the
drill. But what I bet you didn’t know was that there were Jewish Confederate soldiers. A lot of them - numbers estimated between 1,000 to 3,000.
And to take it a step further, if I asked you what state had the largest Jewish community in the year
1800 you’d probably say New York. It’s a great guess. It was my guess…but it’s incorrect. South Carolina earns that distinction! It was home to approximately 2,000 Jews, mostly Sephardic, mostly living in Charleston. With that information, it now makes sense that there were Jews fighting for the Confederacy. It was their home.
According to Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, the recognized Jewish expert on 19th Century American Jews, “Nowhere else in America - certainly not in the Antebellum North - had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be equals as in the Old South”. General Robert E. Lee allowed Jewish soldiers to observe all holy days. Conversely, imagine my dismay when I learned that General Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become president, not only didn’t allow Jews to observe holy days, but issued anti-Jewish orders.
While I was on the road with my production crew filming our first episode of “America Undiscovered,” I saw for myself the graves of 8 Confederate soldiers at the Anshe Chesed cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Ann Gerache, who I mentioned in my last post, was kind enough to give me a tour of the grounds.
Known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” Vicksburg proved its tenacity during the famous 47- day Civil War Siege. When asked to give in, their response: “Mississippians don’t know how and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy.”
That “can do” spirit is still found today. My friend Macy Hart, founder of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, is one example of a single individual who is making a difference in society. ISJL not only provides an educational protocol for thousands of young people but it also established an itinerant rabbi program which administers to the religious and spiritual needs to those communities that are too small to have a rabbi of their own. Learn more what they do at: www.isjl.org.
Where does inspiration come from? Anywhere, really. For me, reading a small blurb in a calendar propelled me to dig deeper into the historical side of our Jewish American experience. What I also find inspiring are the individual voices that are woven into the fabric of our story…our history.