Some of our ‘knowledge’ about Lincoln comes along later rather than sooner. The newspaper page pictured here is in Hebrew, dated 9 January 1979 (5739 in the ancient Jewish calendar). This was given to the Presidential Library many years ago without a source, but it seems to have been published in New York. It is in fairly simple language, likely meant for recent Russian-Jewish immigrants learning Hebrew. Tens of thousands of people made that migration in the 1970s, many of them to Brooklyn.
Teaching immigrants about their new culture requires history, humor, and perhaps a little fudging. The paper is called Gate to the Beginning and the column shown here is “Little Stories About Great Men.” It includes an anecdote about Hans Christian Anderson with a Danish Jew, and another about a Zionist. The Lincoln story does not mention that his birthday would occur the next month, but perhaps in 1979 that anniversary was still so well ingrained in all American life (before the confected ‘Presidents Holiday’ that mushes Washington and Lincoln together) that even an immigrant knew.
The story puts Lincoln in the White House blacking his own boots. In walks an important politician who blurts, “What! You shine your own boots?” To which the humble railsplitter quips, “And what did you think? That I would shine the boots of others?”
We owe Rabbi Michael Datz of Springfield, Illinois, many thanks for translating this tale. To his ear the wording trades on the old-New York Yiddish phrasing heard in so many movies and plays, ‘And what should I / And why would I …?’ The historian of Lincoln might recognize a couple of other themes. First, Paul Zall’s highly useful Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes from Original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln (1995) traces the origin of this tale to an unsigned 1909 magazine piece. Two other works the next year retold and reworded it. In the three versions, the shocked visitor to the White House was variously said to have been Senator Sumner, Secretary Chase, and British minister Lord Lyons.
With confusion like that, we can never say if the incident occurred. Lincoln’s Centennial spawned a profusion of dubious ‘new sources’ like this. But the second theme a Lincolnist can divine is that immigrants old or new might need this ‘teachable moment’ after arriving in an American city where the sight of black men shining others’ shoes was not uncommon. This particular ‘Great Man’ of the American past had been strong enough to free the slaves and humble enough to do his own menial chore. Whether the exact quip about the boots was authentic, or somehow got fudged in the retelling, it harmonizes with what we veritably know about Lincoln’s character and deeds. Lincoln believed in the political and legal equality of black and white; many people believed it in 1909; more believed it in 1979; still more believe it today. And why should we doubt such tales?