Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pesach is in the air, so... Civil War seder, 1862

This is a well-known story, but very moving nonetheless. Here is J. A. Joel's account of the Passover seder he and twenty fellow Union soldiers who were Jewish were able to hold (for both nights) in West Virginia in 1862. 

Only 19 years old at the time, he writes about securing permission to take off, and the manner in which they were able to acquire matzos, their delight  when it arrived containing haggados and prayer books, and some - but not all - of the necessary food. They could find no horseradish, but used a very bitter weed. In lieu of charoses, they used a brick. Not knowing which part of the lamb to use for the zeroah, they put an entire lamb on the table (and ate it afterward). He describes how some of them got drunk from the cider, which they used for the four cups (or, possibly, more).  His letter was printed in the Jewish Messenger April 1866.

As I was preparing this post, I discovered there is even a children's book loosely based on this letter and the event described:

And here is Joseph Joel, apparently he sent this photograph to his friend Rutherford B. Hayes (link):


  1. Sutler - 'a person who followed an army who sold them provisions'. Didn't know that. Thanks for a good scrabble word.

    Why do you suppose Matzos are spelled at times in English and at times in Hebrew?

    1. Good scrabble word indeed!

      I wondered about that, and almost pointed out the Hebrew and was going to say something about Joel's knowledge of how to, at least, write Hebrew, but then it occurred to me that I can't be sure that this is an exact transcription of his letter. Could be the editor just did it that way. However, even without being sure it is at least possible and even likely that Joel did indeed write those words in Hebrew and that would be the explanation for why it is printed this way. If so, my guess as to why he wrote some but not all this way was that it was easier for him to write in English, but he did - maybe even not so consciously - want to show a little that he could write Hebrew.

      Tell you the truth, you can ask the same thing about me and many of my posts. Why do I write some words sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes transliterate, and sometimes translate? Answer: I don't know, I am just not rigorously consistent. ;-)

  2. "Tell you the truth, you can ask the same thing about me and many of my posts. Why do I write some words sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes transliterate, and sometimes translate?"

    answer: there is no onlthemainlinefred! he is a composite personality of many contributors (who lack an editor to smoothen out the transliteration/tranlsation inconsistencies). i mean is it really possible that such a great blog is the product of a single mind?

  3. I knew about עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי, but I never heard of confusing yourself with Moshe Aaron and Pharaoh.

    In an unrelated note: there are some Joels in Cleveland, someone should find out whether they're related.

  4. For another children's book based on a Civil War-era seder story, see http://www.amazon.com/Yankee-at-Seder-Elka-Weber/dp/1582462569

    Both stories are mentioned here:

  5. The Joel's in Cleveland, including Rabbi Avery, Principal at the Mizrachi school and all around good guy, are from the Richard branch, of YU fame. Transplants, in other words.

    Neat article. Something special about soldiers in observance, whether in the IDF or here. Means more, somehow.

  6. Is the eating of the lamb evidence they were Sephardi or evidence they didn't know Ashkenazi minhag that well?

  7. Nachum, it says that they *cooked* the lamb. If they had eaten it whole and roasted, it would have been forbidden even to the communities (hardly all Sephardim) who eat roast meat.

    Anyway, I found the line about "prayer and sacrifice" fascinating -- many Jews, even today, think that the meats on the seder table (or even Thanksgiving table) are a kind of a qorban.



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