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Taking to the battlefields with Jewish Civil War reenactors

Gil Dombrosky, right, with his son, Todd, and granddaughter, Kayla, during a Civil War reenactment in Florida, 2006. (Gil Dombrosky)

Gil Dombrosky, right, with his son, Todd, and granddaughter, Kayla, during a Civil War reenactment in Florida, 2006. (Gil Dombrosky)

Civil War reenactors in the 6th New York Independent Battery Civil War participating in a battle. (Robert Fagan)

Civil War reenactors in the 6th New York Independent Battery Civil War participating in a battle. (Robert Fagan)

Jeffrey Cohen, far right, with fellow members of the 6th New York Independent Battery Civil War reenactors. (Robert Fagan)

Jeffrey Cohen, far right, with fellow members of the 6th New York Independent Battery Civil War reenactors. (Robert Fagan)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Kim Drapkin says she has gunpowder in her blood.

She loves to shoot, but you won’t find her on a range with goggles and a pistol, or out in a forest with a hunting rifle and a camouflage vest. A reproduction of an 1861 model Springfield, muzzle-loading rifled musket is more her style. And you can find her on an open field wearing the gray woolen uniform of the Confederate States army.

Drapkin, 50, is one of a minority of Jews among the many thousands of men and women who each year don the blue and gray for Civil War reenactments. Participants are typically drawn to the reenactments, which often include weekend campouts and period-style Saturday evening dances, by their love for history and the outdoors, along with the camaraderie of the encampments.

Beginning last year and continuing through 2015, a number of the events will mark the 150th anniversaries of major battles, including a reenactment of the battle at Second Bull Run-Manassas set for Aug. 3-5 in Virginia. A sesquicentennial reenactment of the battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day in U.S. history with some 23,000 casualties, is slated for Sept. 14-16 in Maryland.

An estimated 10,000 Jews served during the Civil War, with 3,000 in the Confederacy and 7,000 in the Union, according to Lauren Strauss, an assistant professor of history and Judaic studies at The George Washington University.

There were about 150,000 Jews in the nation at the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861 and about 25,000 of them lived in the South, according to historians. With the North having a heavy population advantage, the percentage of Jews fighting for the Confederacy was higher than those waving the Union flag. 

Southern Jews were well integrated into their new country, Strauss says.

“They were quite loyal to their homes and Southern culture,” she says. They believed in states’ rights and a sense of freedom. It was basically the same rhetoric you’d hear from other Southerners — ‘This is our way of life, our independence.’ ”

Southern Jewish slave owners existed in approximately the same proportion as in the non-Jewish population, Strauss notes, yet Jews had far fewer slaves in total as they tended to be urban and typically had just two or three house slaves.

By contrast, Northern Jews were more likely to be recent immigrants and thus less likely to be integrated into society.

“It wasn’t their country yet,” Strauss says. “They didn’t care that much and didn’t understand the issues.”

Just as family members sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the North and South, so do members of Drapkin’s family in the reenactments. Her son and daughter portray rebels – she and her daughter will fill in for Unionists if there’s a need — her children’s dad is a Yankee (Drapkin assures JTA that her ex-husband’s wearing blue had nothing to do with their divorce, saying the two started reenactments only after their marriage ended).

Drapkin, who lives outside of Baltimore, Md., attributes her fascination with reenactments to several things: a love of American history and the outdoors, a need for a hobby and the discovery that shooting the musket is a great stress reliever.

“I get antsy off season,” she says. “When I go out and fire the gun, I’m fine.”

Before deciding whether she wanted to portray a Confederate or a Union soldier, she did some research.

“I had to decide if I was going to portray someone now with my modern life and my modern views or what I would have been had I been born in 1840,” Drapkin says. “I came to a startling revelation that Baltimore City was primarily Confederate and that the Jews of the Baltimore area primarily were Confederates. … It became a matter of which was worse evil — slavery which you could legislate away, or government, which is going to take away the rights of the people.” 

While Maryland itself stayed in the Union, that’s largely because President Abraham Lincoln sent federal troops into the state to keep it loyal, ensuring that Washington, D.C.’s northern flank would not be an open route for Southern soldiers. 

Drapkin also learned that one of her ancestors had been a blockade runner for the South.

“Everything pointed to being Confederate, so I went Confederate,” she says.

Gil Dombrosky came to the opposite conclusion. 

“I’m a Yank,” says the resident of Fern Park, Fla. “I’m originally from Illinois and I would have a been Yank, since Illinois was in the North. My father’s family is all from Pennsylvania. If anything, they would have been in the Northern army.”

His father’s family came to the United States in the 1850s, but Dombrosky has no records on whether any relatives served in the Civil War. 

Dombrosky, 72, saw his first reenactment about 11 years ago in St. Cloud, Fla. “I went nuts [and thought] I’ve got to join that; I’ve been a history buff all my life,” he says.

Jeffrey Cohen, who calls himself a “loyal son of Abraham” using language of the time period to refer to Jews – typically wears the blue of the North, but now and then dons the gray.

“Sometimes you have to be a cross-dresser,” quips Cohen, a Rahway, N.J., resident who plans to participate in the Manassas and Antietam commemorations. 

A lover of history, he says reenactments “honor the soldiers that actually served during the war, and keeps history alive.” Plus, he says, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a lot of fun.”

While in uniform Cohen, 56, says he tries to put himself in the mind-set of a 19th-century soldier. 

“When a lady walks into a room, I will stand up,” he says. And when he’s met by Christian proselytizers – common in the military camps back then, he says – “I say, ‘Listen, I’m a son of Abraham.’ Usually they leave me alone, but sometimes they leave brochures. I’ll tell them I left Europe to get away from this.”

Now and then, Drapkin says, “anti-Semitism does come up,” with people using offensive terms and fistfights breaking out. 

With Christian chaplains typically on hand for the weekends, which include Sunday morning church services, she recalls attending one morning only to hear the minister “preaching how Jews are the cause of all the trouble. I got up and left.”

Yet she and others interviewed have had positive Jewish experiences as well. 

Dombrosky remembers one Sunday when a handful of Jewish participants “asked the chaplain if he could do something for us.” He obliged with the Hebrew blessing for wine.

Cohen says that when reenactors have used a field next to the Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., one of the rabbis sometimes comes out on Saturdays to invite the Jewish participants to Shabbat services.

“Some of them thought we were no better than goyim,” he says, with a laugh. “We would tease them, and hold our books upside down. We knew the prayers by heart. They would realize they’d been had.”

He also recalls being among a handful of Jews who brought challah and Shabbat candles to a reenactment at Gettysburg. 

Drapkin once celebrated Rosh Hashanah on a battlefield. 

“We ended up with a whole bunch of people in our camp eating apples and honey, and challah,” she says. 

One year she even made matzah ball soup in the field.

 “It was probably the best batch of matzah ball soup I ever made,” she says. 

 
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