Presidents Day and Purim
Feb 18, 2013
For American Jews, February 2013 contained a holiday double-header. On Monday we observed Presidents Day. Then on Saturday we celebrated Purim, commemorating the Jews' salvation from genocide as recounted in the Book of Esther.
Presidents Day rarely falls in the same week as Purim, and it won't again for almost 40 years (in 2051 -- take my word for it). But these two seemingly disparate holidays have much in common.
For starters, our early presidents were fans of the Purim story. Many of them, including Washington and Lincoln, referenced Purim in writings, and were familiar with the Book of Esther. The characters of the story -- Haman the villain, Achashverosh the bumbling king, and Mordecai and Esther, the improbable heroes -- were part of their literary traditions.
Honest Abe referenced the Book of Esther twice. On June 12, 1848, Lincoln detailed how the Whig's nomination of Zachary Taylor, a war hero, would hurt their rivals, the Democrats: "The war is now to them the gallows of Haman, which they built for us, and on which they are doomed to be hanged themselves." Seven years later, Lincoln wrote to his old friend, Joshua Speed, about Kansas's constitution which allowed authorities "to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his [freedom]."
Lincoln remarked that "If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate."
Lincoln didn't just refer to the story of Purim. On at least two occasions, Lincoln was compared to one of its protagonists. As Richard Carwardine relates, a group of Chicago ministers met with Lincoln on September 13, 1862 to encourage him to emancipate the slaves. At the close of their remarks, the ministers explicitly compared Lincoln to Queen Esther, who hesitated to proclaim her identity as a Jew (and thus save her people) when Mordecai called upon her to do so. Like Esther, Lincoln ultimately did what he knew to be right. Nine days later, following the Union victory at Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Lincoln-Purim connection doesn't stop there.
Months after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11, expelling all Jews from areas under his military control. As Jonathan Sarna recounts, the Jewish newspapers quickly compared Grant to Haman, and a delegation of Jewish leaders visited the White House to plead with Lincoln, who quickly revoked Grant's order. (Grant, for his part, publicly apologized for the order in 1868, appointed more Jews to his cabinet than any of his predecessors, and a Rabbi even served as one of his honorary pallbearers. Grant acted poorly when he issued Order No. 11, but he was no Haman).