Matthew Lopez's

The Whipping Man

February 7 - 22
Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium

Study Guide Information

Set in Richmond, VA in the days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s , a Jewish Confederate soldier returns to his childhood home only to find it in ruins and the only occupants former slaves. As the men await the return of family, they negotiate the terrible past and an uncertain future..  The Whipping Man is a moving and provocative look at a pivotal time in American history.
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Notes for The Whipping Man by Carolyn Lipson-Walker
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  • The Whipping Man was born when playwright Matthew Lopez read Bertam W. Korn’s American Jewry and the Civil War and Robert N. Rosen’s The Jewish Confederates and discovered that Passover (the weeklong festival that commemorates the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt) began the evening of the day (April 10, 1865) after Lee surrendered at Appomattox (April 9, 1865) and four nights before Lincoln was assassinated (April 14, 1865). “It was this eureka moment,” Lopez said of the idea of slaves being freed on Passover. “As these slaves were being freed in the American South, there was this ancient observance of the Exodus story. . . There is something within Judaism, within the practice of Passover itself, to my imaginative mind, that would be quite appealing to slaves.”,

    jewish officer

    Captain Jacob Jacobs, 83rd NY Infantry, wounded at Gettysburg.

  • The Passover seder is a retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. “This year we are slaves, next year we are free.”
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  • And thus Lopez imagined a powerful fictional drama: One southern home in the very eventful month of April 1865, two slaves, and their former master, all self-identifying Jews, celebrate the observance of Pesach (Passover) together.
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  • Playwright Matthew Lopez, an Episcopalian, and the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, grew up in the panhandle of Florida. Both his parents were Civil War re-creators.
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  • Although a deeply uncomfortable fact considering the Jewish historical experience of slavery and persecution, a small minority of slaveholders were Jews. According to the 1860 census, 1.25% of the 315,632 southern slave owners were Jews (4,000).
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  • About 90% of the southern slave population worked on plantations. Only a tiny proportion of Jews in the Old South were planters. Most Jews were petty traders trying to eke out a marginal living and had no capital to purchase a slave nor any need for a slave’s service.
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  • It was common for Christian slave owners to teach religion to their slaves. We have no historical evidence that Jewish slaveholders encouraged their slaves to practice or convert to Judaism.
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  • “Nowhere in American—certainly not the antebellum North—had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be complete equals as in the old South.” (Rosen, The Jewish Confederates) Jews accepted southern mores and customs, and white Christian southerners accepted Jews. Slavery played an unacknowledged role in the acceptance of Jews in the South. The Jews were perceived as white and, therefore, gained higher social and political status in the South than in the North. Prior to the Civil War, the northern states were not as hospitable to Jews as the South. In fact, when the South seceded, the Boston Evening Transcript, a publication edited by abolitionists, blamed secession on southern Jews.
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  • The attitude of antebellum southern Jews about slavery was complex. In general, the opinions of southern Jews on slavery were indistinguishable from that of their white Christian friends. Bertram Korn writes: “. . . being Jewish did not play any discernible role in the determination of the relationship of Jews to slavery. Except for the teachings of a very few rabbis like David Einhorn of Baltimore, Judaism in American had not yet adopted a ‘social justice’ view of responsibility of Jews toward society.” Most southern Jews, like their white Christian neighbors, were loyal to the Confederacy.
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  •  In his memoir, Oscar Straus, the first Jewish cabinet member, writes that “as a boy brought up in the South [before the Civil War] I never questioned the rights or wrongs of slavery. Its existence I regarded as a matter of course, as most other customs or institutions.” Born in Germany, Straus was raised in Talbotton, Georgia and served as Secretary of Commerce and Labor under President Theodore Roosevelt.
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Quick facts on Jews in Civil War America
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  • 3,000 Jews fought on the southern side. (At least 7,000 Jews fought for the Union.)
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  • The Jewish companies were formed in Syracuse, Chicago, Cincinnati, and two in Georgia.
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    Jewish Funeral Letter

    Letter from a Georgia officer describing the first Jewish funeral he had ever attended, Savannah, 30 August, 1863:  “Judge DeLyon has yielded to the ultimate Law of Life and was buried this morning. I attended the funeral services at his house and witnessed for the first time the ceremonies constituting a Jewish burial. As you may suppose, not a word was said of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Author of all salvation and the hope of our resurrection. The emotions suggested by the occasion were sad to the extreme.”

  • When the Richmond Light Infantry Blues left the capital of Virginia for battle in April 1861, 15 of its 99 members were Jews. The Hebrew Cemetery in Richmond contains a section with the graves of 30 Jewish Confederate soldiers who died in or near Richmond. It is one of two Jewish military cemeteries outside the State of Israel.
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  • In 1860, the Jewish population in the U.S. was about 150,000 (Of the Jewish population, more than 100,000 were new immigrants who had arrived from Germany since 1850.) The total US population exceeded 31 million.
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  • There were an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Jews living in the 11 states of the Confederacy in 1860, approximately 7% of the U.S. Jewish population. Significant Jewish communities flourished in Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis, and in Richmond although they were a tiny proportion of each city’s population.

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Read More:

Matthew Lopez Website >

Civil War on PBS >

Civil War on History Channel >

A History of Jews in the Civil War >

Judah Benjamin – Jewish Confederate Secretary of War / State >

Penumbra Theatre’s Full Study Guide >