The Civil War at the National Museum of American Jewish History

November 18, 2011

By Leigh Goldenberg, Marketing and PR Manager

On Tuesday, November 15, members of the Arden’s Sylvan Society joined members of the National Museum of American Jewish History at the museum for an event inspired by our production of The Whipping Man. We noshed and had a glass of wine on the museum’s third floor, with a gorgeous view overlooking Independence National Historical  Park. Then, our Associate Artistic Director Ed Sobel led a discussion about American Jews during the Civil War with Rabbi Lance Sussman, from Congregation Keneseth Israel.

While the initial reaction to the premise of The Whipping Man (A Jewish Confederate Solider? With slaves who are practicing Jews, too?) might seem improbable or imagined, Rabbi Sussman gave us an overview of the time period that enforced playwright Matthew Lopez’s premise.  In the 1800s, a small percentage of Americans were Jewish, yet those Jews lived in various parts of the country, primarily in urban centers. And like all Americans, Jews were divided when it came to slavery, aligning with their neighbors and political affiliations rather than their religion. So yes, there were Jewish slaveholders and Jewish officers in the Confederate Army, just like Caleb DeLeon in our play.

The Whipping Man both celebrates and challenges tenets of the Jewish faith, which Rabbi Sussman addressed as well. Simon’s assertions about asking questions and wrestling with God have direct biblical ties. And while Judaism in no way encourages the treatment the DeLeon family gave to John, the Jewish people have a history (like people of most backgrounds) of using violence when in a position of power. Rabbi Sussman got a chuckle from the crowd when sharing this saying: Jews are just like anyone else. Except more so.

After the conversation, we were able to tour the museum’s permanent collection, which takes us through the history of Jews in America, beginning in 1654. The Civil War section features stories, documents, and artifacts that reflect the story from The Whipping Man. (I even spotted a reference to a DeLeon just across from a Confederate uniform that looks like Cody’s costume in the play!)

We are grateful to have such a rich and relevant resource in the NMAJH, just a few blocks from the Arden. If you’ve seen The Whipping Man, you’ll no doubt find value in viewing the collection. And if you’ve already been to the museum, or are intrigued about this period in America’s history, we welcome you to see The Whipping Man. You can even book a tour at the museum with tickets to the show! Get details on that package by calling 215.923.3811 x. 141

Now tell us, how does this play and time in history challenge or enforce your ideas?

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