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The Curtain Parts--a Bit--on an Enigmatic Southerner : JUDAH P. BENJAMIN The Jewish Confederate by Eli N. Evans (The Free Press: $24.95; 459 pp.)

January 24, 1988|Daniel Polish | Polish is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood

Judah P. Benjamin--usually referred to as the "Vice President of the Confederacy"--represents a significant dilemma of my years growing up as a Jew both proud of his people and with an intense commitment to the ideals of liberalism and human solidarity that I found embodied in the civil rights movement. It was nice that a Jew rose to the vice presidency of something, but did it have to be the bastion of slavery? Actually, all I--or anyone else for that matter--seemed to know about Judah P. Benjamin was that one fact. Little more was said about him in any of the presentations of American Jewish history that came our way. Now in this treatment of Benjamin's life, Eli N. Evans helps us see that the silence about him was not completely happenstance. Evans compensates for history's silence by filling in the blanks with more than we would ever want to know, and raising the question of just how Jewish was this man characterized by Stephen Vincent Benet as "the dapper Jew" and whose contemporaries so often used his "race" as the source of vilification against him.

As it turns out, Benjamin was never vice president of the Confederacy. He served sequentially as attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state. Often called "the brains of the Confederacy," he was the closest and the most loyal confidant of President Jefferson Davis--usually sequestered with him in his office for 10 to 12 hours a day.

Despite this, little has been written about Benjamin. In his massive autobiography, Davis mentions him but twice. Benjamin himself compounded the situation by relegating himself to Davis' shadow during the war, eschewing all public discussion of his role once he had escaped to England after the war and burning almost all of his personal papers before he died.

Evans tries to pierce this veil of obscurity with mixed success. Some of what he writes is based upon hard evidence. Other parts of the book rest on conjecture and strained argumentation. What can be said with certainty is that Judah P. Benjamin occupies a remarkable, if peculiar, role in the history of Jewish life in America. Until the creation of the state of Israel, he was likely the only Jew in the world whose likeness appeared on the official currency of any country (or would-be country). Benjamin was the first acknowledged Jew to serve in the United States Senate. (Another born Jew preceded him, but had already converted to Christianity and attributed his Semitic features to being descended from a Moroccan prince.)

Benjamin does not come across as a particularly sympathetic figure. Perceptive and brilliant he undoubtedly was, but also likely without principle. He may have been charming--he seems to have enthralled Davis' wife, Varina--but apparently without deep feelings for anyone or anything. He was, no doubt, resourceful, overcoming numerous obstacles including an ignominious departure from Yale after a brief enrollment; avoiding any political--and apparently emotional--consequences of an extremely unconventional marriage; and escaping the collapse of the Confederacy to rebuild his life--most successfully--as a lawyer in England. Evans conjectures that it was the outsider's status of the Jew that gave him the strength to triumph over these adversities.

Benjamin possessed evident talent as an orator and politician--he was elected senator from his adopted state of Louisiana before he was 40 years old. What we do not get is any sense of what motivated him. We are given little feel or insight into what drove him to become the premier propagandist and strategist for the Confederacy.

Evans gives us a splendid account of the events of the Civil War from the perspective of the inner workings of the Confederate government, with special attention to the role of Benjamin in general and in particular to the role his Jewishness had in shaping his character and actions. Evans gives us a wonderful sense of life in Richmond during the height of the war and when the city was under siege. The book will be of special interest to Civil War buffs for this reason.

To readers interested in Jewish life, Evans seems, at times, to make more of Benjamin's Jewishness than his subject himself chose to. Benjamin seems to have had a complex relationship to his own Jewishness. Born of a Sephardic family, he never denied or renounced his tradition. Yet he married into a Catholic Creole family--in a church, saw his only child married as a Catholic, and, perhaps at his wife's insistence, himself received last rites on his death bed. He was known at times to express both indifference to--and discomfort about--his Jewishness. Yet to him has been attributed the retort to an opponent who chose to demean him because of his Jewishness:

It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were

receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand

of Deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mount

Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in

the forests of Great Britain.

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