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'All Other Nights' by Dara Horn

April 12, 2009|Ruth Andrew Ellenson | Ellenson received the National Jewish Book Award for her anthology "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt."

Compared to Confederate contemporaries Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson or President Jefferson Davis, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin is relatively unknown.

A Jewish man raised in Charleston, S.C., who entered Yale Law School at 14 and became a U.S. senator, he was appointed by Davis as his attorney general in 1861. Benjamin, assisted by his shrewd intellect and gifts as an orator, was rumored to have eventually masterminded the assassination of Abraham Lincoln through Confederate spy rings.

Still, for all of Benjamin's abilities, he was still largely seen by enemies and friends simply as a Jew. Often referred to as "Judas Benjamin," he was once accused on the Senate floor of being an "Israelite in Egyptian's clothing" by an abolitionist condemning him for owning more than 100 slaves.

The complex world of Benjamin and other Jewish Americans during the Civil War is chronicled in Dara Horn's vibrant and compelling third novel, "All Other Nights," which examines the tenuous relationships of American Jewish spies -- between each other, to their religion and to their country -- during the Civil War.

As the novel begins, young Union spy Jacob Rappaport observes Benjamin as he walks into a New Orleans home for a Passover Seder, the ritual meal during which the story of Moses leading the Israelite slaves to freedom is commemorated. In what can only be seen as a grotesque parody, but is in fact historically accurate, those assembled are served by slaves.

"Every Hebrew in America was fascinated by Benjamin," Horn writes. "Southern Hebrews saw him as the messenger of the Messiah, the herald who would proclaim liberty throughout the land to anyone who had ever felt that Jewish fear of power. Northern Hebrews saw him as the beginning of a descent into an American Jewish hell, and whispered at Friday night tables that if the Confederacy were to prevail, the rot of centuries would eat through even the freshness of America and the Jews would be blamed again."

But the trajectory of Benjamin's life, Rappaport observes, "was American brilliance, plain and simple. His entire life was an elaborate refusal to be the person he had been born to be."

Rappaport struggles with the refusals so seemingly easy for Benjamin. Born the son of European Jewish immigrants to New York, he enjoys a childhood of privilege and is expected to follow his father into business until, to escape an arranged marriage, he runs away to join the Union Army. He flees his fate because he was "unable to understand that he could have said no."

So he finds himself at the Seder because he has accepted a mission to assassinate his own uncle, suspected of being a Confederate spy, during the Passover meal at the home of that uncle, a prominent New Orleans Jew. It never bothers his Union commanders that what they are asking Rappaport to do is obscenely sacrilegious. They just see his Jewish connections -- religious and social -- as impervious to the divisions that have otherwise scarred the country, and they tap into that access to achieve their own goals.

This inability to refuse what is ordered of him, the ultimate submission of slavery, proves to be Rappaport's defining characteristic. That he is a first-generation Jew in America, the land of freedom and opportunity, and not a slave in Egypt bound to execute another's whims, is lost on this young soldier. He knows only duty and longing -- to fulfill his parents' ambitions as their American son, to belong to the greater society. And yet it is entirely an illusion, as evidenced by the Union generals who command him to kill his uncle: "While he looked in the mirror and saw a tall, blond, nineteen-year-old American boy, the three men at the table looked at him and saw Judah Benjamin."

Next, Rappaport accepts a mission to marry a Jewish Confederate spy. Through a family connection in Virginia, he makes his way to the home of widower Philip Levy and his four beautiful and dangerous daughters. Much like the four sons of the Seder story, the girls are all sharply drawn. Their mother had been murdered by a slave in front of them, but instead of that making them less loyal to the South, the girls form an elaborate spy ring supporting the Confederacy.

The scenes where Rappaport navigates in a house of women ruined emotionally and financially by war are among the most vivid and playful. Batted about like a ball of hapless wool among four kittens, the young man finds himself falling in love with Jeannie, as daughter Eugenia is called, all the while plotting the downfall of her family.

In one of the final scenes, as the war is ending and Richmond and the Confederacy fall into ruin (the fashion at the time was to have what were called "Starvation Balls," in which people put on their finest gowns and sat down to empty plates and glasses full of water, as there was no wine or food to be found), Rappaport is again sent behind enemy lines to seek out Benjamin.

He knows that he will be able to find Benjamin at home, alone and unguarded on Sunday morning while all his other compatriots are at church. "Every American Hebrew, including Jacob, knew the strange freedom of Sunday mornings . . . delirious with freedom, relieved, for an entire hour, of the everlasting burden of worrying what others would think. For that magical hour each week, America was theirs."

But for these characters, America is never really theirs. Does a Jew really ever belong anywhere, Horn seems to ask. Or is a constant state of displacement and a longing to be accepted in the wider world what defines Jewishness? It is not until Horn's characters learn to be loyal and protect those they love that they are redeemed and, like those enslaved before them, are given the gift of freedom.

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