When Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State Went to Jerusalem
The bond between Judaism and Jerusalem is ancient and unbreakable, on the saddest day of the year and every other day.
In August 1870, the American statesman William H. Seward — a former governor, senator, and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state — embarked on a 14-month world tour together with his adopted daughter, Olive Risley Seward. They visited Japan, China, Indonesia, India, the Levant, and Europe, and on their return in the fall of 1871, began working on a book about their travels. The nearly 800-page volume — William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World — was published in 1873 and became a bestseller.
Recently I acquired a copy of Seward’s book and I found particularly moving his description of what he saw in Jerusalem — a description all the more apt this week, which will culminate in the saddest day of the Jewish calendar.
On Tisha B’Av — the ninth day of the month of Av — many of the worst calamities in Jewish history occurred. On that date in 586 BCE, Babylonian forces destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem, which had been the center of Jewish life for four centuries. Eventually a Second Temple was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by Rome’s legions on the same date in 70 CE. That destruction triggered the worst mass murder and enslavement of Jews until the Nazi Holocaust in the 20th century.
Jews Praying at Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, by Johann Martin Bernatz (1868)
Other disasters have coincided with the 9th of Av. They include the banishment of the Jews of England in 1290 and the vastly more catastrophic expulsion from Spain in 1492 of every Jew who refused to be baptized. World War I began on Tisha B’Av in 1914, setting in motion the train of events that would lead to Hitler’s rise. And on that fateful date in 1941, Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler received clearance to develop the “Final Solution,” Germany’s campaign to exterminate European Jewry.
No date in Jewish life is so drenched in grief. For more than 2,000 years, observant Jews have marked the day by fasting from food and water for 25 hours. In synagogues around the world, families will gather at sundown to begin the fast by sitting on the floor and reading the biblical Book of Lamentations, a collection of aching dirges mourning the (first) destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora that followed.
There is a story told about Napoleon passing a synagogue on the ninth of Av and asking about the weeping he could hear from within. On being told that the Jews were bereaved for a Temple and a city destroyed 18 centuries earlier, he is said to have remarked that a nation capable of mourning its loss for so long would one day flourish again in its land.
The tale about Napoleon may be apocryphal. Not so Seward’s visit to Jerusalem in the summer of 1871 or about how affected he was to see the sorrow of the city’s Jewish residents at the degradation of their eternal city.
Jerusalem in Seward’s day was part of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic superpower, and had been for centuries. Yet as Seward noted, Jews were the city’s largest demographic.
There has been a nearly unbroken Jewish presence in Jerusalem for 3,000 years.
“The Mohammedans [i.e., Muslims] are 4,000 and occupy the northeast quarter, including the whole area of the Mosque of Omar,” he wrote. “The Jews are 8,000 and have the southeast quarter. . . The Armenians number 1,800 and have the southwest quarter; and the other Christians, amounting to 2,200, have the northwest quarter, which overlooks the Valley of Hinnom.” Today, Palestinian propagandists work overtime to portray Jews as interlopers in Jerusalem. In reality, there has been a nearly unbroken Jewish presence in the city for 3,000 years. The population of Jerusalem has been predominantly Jewish since at least the early 1800s.
The former secretary of state recounted that he and his companions spent their last day in Jerusalem “among and with the Jews, who were the builders and founders of the city, and who cling the closer to it for its disasters and desolation.” It was a Friday afternoon, the one day each week when Jews were permitted access to the Western Wall, and Seward saw them “pouring out their lamentations over the fall of their beloved city, and praying for its restoration to the Lord.” Whether it rains or shines, he continued, they are there each Friday without fail:
[T]hey come together at an early hour, old and young, men, women, and little children – the poor and the rich, in their best costumes, discordant as the diverse nations from which they come.
They are attended by their rabbis, each bringing the carefully preserved and elaborately bound text of the book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, either in their respective languages, or in the original Hebrew. For many hours they pour forth their complaints, reading and reciting the poetic language of the prophet, beating their hands against the wall, and bathing the stones with their kisses and tears. It is no mere formal ceremony. During the several hours while we were spectators of it, there was not one act of irreverence or indifference.
Stirred by what he had seen, Seward wrote that few Americans could appreciate “the solemnity and depth of the profound grief and pious feeling exhibited” by the Jews he’d sat with. Could he have believed that within a century, Jews would be the sovereign power in Jerusalem, or that the Ottomans, like every other empire to have ruled Jerusalem during the long, long history of the Jewish people —Hittites, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mamelukes, Crusaders — would fade into obscurity? Perhaps not. But there is little doubt that the Jews he observed that day, “bathing the stones with their kisses and tears,” would have believed it.
For Jews never stopped believing it. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” run the haunting words of the 137th Psalm, “let my right hand forget her skill.” No people has had such an enduring connection to a city. The bond between Judaism and Jerusalem is ancient and unbreakable, on the saddest day of the year and every other day.