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Documentary on Jewish Civil War Soldiers to be Screened in Maine
03/13/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

The Civil War was a pivotal event in the history of many groups, including American Jews, who fought on both sides of the conflict. Their story is chronicled in a documentary that's being featured this week by the Maine Jewish Film Festival. "Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray" will also be screened and discussed Thursday at Colby College in Waterville, where one Civil War scholar is likely to raise some questions about the conclusions reached by the film. Keith Shortall has more.

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Documentary on Jewish Civil War Soldiers to be Scr Listen

View the film's trailer, above.

Audio from film: "Most people know nothing about it. You could read an entire Civil War book, for example, written by the great historians and not find any Jewish references at all. The War Between the States is a turning point for American Jews. Ten thousand of them fight to show their devotion to the Union and the Confederacy.

The 55-minute film, "Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray," sets out to tell the story of Jews who fought for both the North and the South.

"What was really interesting to me was how Jewish people could live in the South, with slavery," says Maryland-based filmaker Jonathan Gruber. Gruber, who wrote, produced and directed the film, says he became fascinated by the record of debate among American Rabbis over the issue of slavery at the time.

"And in the film there are, on both sides, people saying, 'From the Bible, from the Torah, here's where it says you can have a slave because it says your slave needs to rest on the Sabbath so clearly slavery was okay,'" Gruber says. "And other rabbis would say "well that's ridiculous - the term 'slave' is so different back then then stealing someone or taking someone unwillingly from Africa. So that was to me was fascinating."

Audio from film: For Jewish southerners, supporting American slavery while being decendants of freed slaves, proves to be a complex issue.

Audio from source in film: "It is fascinating really to contemplate that Jews had the holiday of Passover that recalls every year the move from slavery to freedom, and one wonders how come they didn't ask questions about, "How can we be slaveholders?"

Colby College History Professor Elizabeth Leonard says that's a great question, but one that isn't fully answered by the film.

"There is reference in the film to the whole idea of Jews having been slaves in history themselves and then supporting slavery by fighting for the Confederacy, but I think it would have been nicer to say more about that," she says. "And maybe there were Jews who really had questions about slavery but were still fighting for some notion of southern rights or something like that."

Leonard also questions what she took away as one of the central conclusions of the film. "And it ends I think with the narrator saying..."

(Fade to narration from the film): "that the Civil War is the defining era for Jews in the United States. As a group their loyalty and valor would never again be questioned."

"And given that 3,000 supposedly served the South, of the 10,000 who served, I find that such a curious conclusion," Leonard says. "The film might end saying, 'The war gave Jews an opportunity to show their devotion to the cause of whichever section they lived in' - that would be a more accurate statement."

But Jonathan Gruber says the film does explore the realities of the times, and the roles that Southern Jews played in the war.

"What I found is there were Jewish slave owners, there wereJewish slave traders," Gruber says. "And this is in our film - not at the end, but it's in there. But what I also found was that a lot of Jewish people who had come from persecution in central Europe came to the South and they were treated well. When you to a place and you are treated well, and you come from persecution, you feel loyal to that society. And so they fought."

In the end, says Gruber, the film is more than just a history of a particular time in America. "Even though it's about the news of the Civil War, it's a bigger story - it's about tolerance, it's about certain people doing the right thing, certain people doing the wrong thing, and ultimately trying to find their way in a coutnry that is unlike any other."

Filmaker Jonathan Gruber will attend screenings of "Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray" Thursday afternoon at 3:00 at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, and at 7:00 p.m. at Colby College in Waterville.



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