Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington | Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum

Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City Brings Local Jewish Stories to the Fore

By Eugene L. Meyer

It is ironic, perhaps, that on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth there is so much focus on his death.  But Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 turned a great president into a martyred one.

Washington Hebrew Congregation's first synagoguge

Washington Hebrew Congregation's first syngagogue
Courtesy of Washington Hebrew Congregation

We, as Jews, have had more than our share of martyrs, so Lincoln’s assassination still resonates.  Moreover, Jewish Washingtonians were present and accounted for during that tumultuous time.  Lincoln was shot on the fifth day of Passover that year.  Just as Washington’s Jews were marking their emancipation from slavery, the Great Emancipator was passing from the scene.  A Jewish doctor was among those attending to Lincoln on his death bed. And soon afterward 125 members of Washington Hebrew Congregation, founded thirteen years before, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in Lincoln’s funeral cortege.

This story and many more are told in “Jews in Mr. Lincoln’s City,” the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s Lincoln Bicentennial exhibit.  The exhibit, consisting of several panels and displays of original artifacts, tells of a city and country divided and in turmoil through the prism of the small but growing Jewish community here.

Bernard Nordlinger

Bernard Nordlinger
Courtesy of Robin Nordlinger Leiman

Jews living in Washington City and nearby Alexandria reflected the passions and divisions of their times.  Dr. Charles Liebermann, a founder of Georgetown University’s medical school, a president of the D.C. Medical Society and a physician present at Lincoln’s deathbed, was a slaveholder until 1862 when Congress abolished slavery in the District. Bernard Nordlinger, a Confederate soldier from Macon, Georgia, opened a store in Georgetown after the war, and his descendants, including a former president of the Jewish Historical Society, still reside here.  During the war, a former Southern Congressman’s wife was arrested for spying for the Confederacy. Her fealty for the rebel cause was undiminished.

Ulysses S. Grant

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The exhibit touches on Jews who advised Lincoln (and notes that a Jewish podiatrist tended to his feet) and on Lincoln’s countermanding the obnoxious General Orders No. 11, in which Gen. Ulysses S. Grant barred Jews “as a class” from the Union-occupied Department of Tennessee.  After the war, the exhibit notes, Grant showed remorse by attending the 1876 dedication of Adas Israel, now the Albert and Lillian Small Museum relocated to 3rd and G Streets NW.

Jews in Mr. Lincoln’s City emerge as full participants in the capital’s political, social, commercial and religious life.  One Adolphus Solomons, whose firm Philp & Solomons made and sold stationery here, was even offered the governorship of the District of Columbia. He declined the position but went on to help found the American Red Cross and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Today, he’s lost to history, but the Jewish Historical Society of Washington’s exhibit exhumes his story along with many others to enlighten contemporary viewers.