Jews in the South

By Leonard Dinnerstein; Mary Dale Palsson | Go to book overview
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Judah Philip Benjamin

Benjamin Kaplan

I F THIS ESSAY bore a subtitle it would surely have to be "The Story of a Disillusioned Hero." From his unpretentious birth in a poor Orthodox Jewish home, to his elegant burial in the Catholic cemetery of Pérelachaise in Le Mans, France; from hearing his father read from the Torah ( Leviticus, 25:10): "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," to his vociferous stand in favor of slavery; from being one of the chief architects of the Confederacy, to escaping ignominiously to England after Appomattox, this wandering Jew, an exotic and mysterious personality, is one of contradictions, controversies, and legend. His true character may remain a secret for a long time to come, and Benjamin himself was partly responsible for the mystery. His distrust of biographers was strong enough to cause him to destroy many of his letters and documents, making it difficult to achieve a total picture of Benjamin the man.

Hated by his opponents, adored by his friends, charming, aggressive, egotistical, and brilliant, one of the most powerful and enduring forces of the Confederacy, he was a man acquainted with grief, tortured with doubt about his mission in life. Wherever he went he was apshy plauded, yet he must have felt alien to that social and political atmosphere. He did his utmost to absorb himself into the social, political, economic, and military structure of the South, yet managed to maintain a "free space" around himself that somewhat protected him from the intolerance, jealousy, and hatred he felt from all directions. All the while,

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