Thursday, January 13, 2011

NYJFF ’11: Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray

Judah P. Benjamin was the first Jewish cabinet officer in North America. He served as Secretary of State for the C.S.A. The historical irony is obvious. In fact, Jewish Americans willingly enlisted on both sides of the Civil War at disproportionally high rates, yet their service remains largely overlooked. Intended to rectify Civil War historians’ unfortunate slights, Jonathan Gruber’s documentary Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray compellingly surveys Jewish participation in the Civil War. Produced in time for the war’s sesquicentennial, it screens next Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Benjamin was not the only Jewish Confederate. Though it clearly discomforts several of the contemporary Jewish historians interviewed throughout Soldiers, many Jewish Americans so appreciated the welcoming home they found in the Old South, the rushed to take arms on her behalf, despite the significance of slavery within their religious faith. Likewise, Jewish Northerners also readily volunteered as an unambiguous act of patriotism, while embracing abolitionism with a special import as the descendants of the slaves of Exodus.

More than simply dressing up historical footnotes, the film identifies several instances of battle-turning valor, leading to five Congressional Medals of Honor for Jewish soldiers, a wholly remarkable total given the relative overall size of the Jewish-American population. Yet, perhaps the most unfairly ignored historical figure receiving his just due in Soldiers is that of Isachar Zacharie, Lincoln’s self-taught podiatrist, who served the president as a spy and a diplomatic envoy to the Confederate States.

Frankly, Soldiers might challenge some pre-conceived notions, essentially implying the Confederate Army was somewhat more congenial to Jewish serviceman than the Union forces. Still, it singles out one Northerner who overturned injustice for Jewish Americans whenever he confronted it. That man was indeed Abraham Lincoln.

Though Soldiers definitely looks ready-made for cable or PBS broadcast, it is legitimately educational. It also boasts some notable talent in the audio-booth, with Oscar-nominated screenwriter-director John Milius providing the authoritative narration and Sam Waterston giving voice to Pres. Lincoln.

It sounds like a tall order, but Soldiers should manage to increase most viewers’ appreciation of Lincoln. It definitely seems to have been produced from the perspective that America is place where justice and tolerance ultimately triumph, albeit at a tremendous price in this case. Well paced and informative, it screens this coming Tuesday (1/18) and Wednesday (1/19) with a special panel discussion scheduled to follow the latter night.